OTTAWA - The Conservative government has another legal battle on its hands after the Federal Court ruled against controversial reductions to health-care coverage for refugee claimants.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says the government will appeal Friday's decision by Justice Anne Mactavish, which denounced the cuts as "cruel and unusual" treatment — particularly to the children of claimants who have sought refuge in Canada.
"We think it is absolutely incumbent on us as a government to defend the interests of taxpayers that weren't being looked after under the previous system," Alexander said at his constituency office in Ajax, Ont.
"There was not just normal health care, but enhanced health care, that goes well beyond what most Canadians receive, going to people whose claims failed, whose claims were literally bogus."
The Tories scaled back medical benefits for newcomers two years ago, leaving most immigrants with basic and essential health care, but without supplementals such as vision and dental care.
But rejected refugee claimants, and refugee claimants from countries the government considers safe, are now eligible for care only when they pose a threat to public health.
The changes have saved hundreds of millions of dollars at all levels of government, Alexander said.
The government cuts were challenged by a coalition including refugee lawyers and a doctors' group.
In her 268-page decision, Mactavish said the changes put the health of children of refugee claimants at risk.
"The 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency," she wrote.
That, according to Mactavish, violates a section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It also creates two tiers of health coverage between refugee claimants from countries on the government's safe list and those who are not, she wrote.
"It puts their lives at risk and perpetuates the stereotypical view that they are cheats and queue-jumpers, that their refugee claims are 'bogus,' and that they have come to Canada to abuse the generosity of Canadians," Mactavish wrote.
"It serves to perpetuate the historical disadvantage suffered by members of an admittedly vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged group."
The judge suspended the effect of the ruling for four months.
Government lawyers previously told the court that striking down the changes would "result in a policy vacuum" that could endanger refugee claimants as well as public safety.
The Conservatives say the new rules bring health benefits for newcomers in line with what other Canadians receive and deter those who would abuse the health-care system.
Refugee claimants can still access health care through other programs, the government argues, including those put in place by some provinces to reinstate access to essential and emergency care.
However, not all provinces offer the same level of coverage.
"All the doctors that I know who treat refugee claimants do not turn them away," said Philip Berger, chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and a founding member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care.
"However, we know that a majority of physicians in clinics in various cities across Canada will not accept refugee claimants as patients because they have no confidence in the (Interim Federal Health Program) as it now stands."
Liberal MP John McCallum, the party's immigration critic, praised the courts for rejecting what he called an "extraordinarily cruel and mean-spirited" policy.
"Thank goodness for judges and the charter to make us a kinder country, even if the government doesn't want to go in that direction," he said in an interview.
NDP critic Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe accused the Conservatives of playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. "Today, the court has told them in no uncertain terms that they have to stop," she said in a statement.
Friday's Federal Court decision is the latest in what is becoming a lengthy list of stinging legal rebukes to the Conservatives.
In recent months, the Supreme Court of Canada has poured cold water on the Conservatives' plan to reform or abolish the Senate; ruled against provisions in one of their tough-on-crime laws that sought to stop judges from routinely giving inmates extra credit for time spent in jail before custody; and rejected the appointment of Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court.
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