06/18/2012 02:23 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

"Canada is way better than this": doctors protest over cuts to refugee health

OTTAWA - Doctors threw on their white coats Monday and rushed to Parliament Hill, which they say is the scene for the start of a national medical emergency: deteriorating refugee health.

Hundreds of medical professionals are protesting government cuts to the interim federal health program, which provides extended health-care benefits to people while they await having their refugee status approved.

"We are launching into an uncontrolled, disastrous, human health experience by arbitrarily denying life-saving medical care to some of the most vulnerable and traumatized people in the whole world," said Dr. Mark Tyndall, the head of infectious diseases at the Ottawa hospital during a passionate news conference.

"And for what? Further isolation and suffering, the spread of infectious diseases, increased wait times at our hospital emergency departments. Canada is way better than this."

Protests were held across the country in response to the cuts, which were announced by the government in April.

The benefits include prescription drugs and vision and dental care and will expire on June 30.

Most will only receive only urgent, or essential care.

Those whose refugee claims are rejected, or who come from countries deemed safe by the federal government, will only be treated if they pose a threat to public health.

For both categories, medications will be paid for only if they treat or prevent a public health issue.

A committee in the Immigration department will determine which services meet the definition of treating or preventing public health risks.

The Conservatives argue the extended benefits are better than those received by most Canadians.

"These families will have the same coverage as regular, tax-paying Canadian families," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.

"They get an open work permit from which they make income to help pay for any additional things like dental, eye care or supplementary pharmaceuticals."

Jinny Sims, the NDP's immigration critic, said there are some Canadians who do receive the benefits set to be denied to refugees — those on social assistance or disability programs.

Sims said refugees should be considered akin to those Canadians.

"It once again goes back to how are we going to treat the must vulnerable," she said.

"Nobody is really out there saying that the refugees who arrive get healthcare benefits people who are on social assistance don’t get."

But Kenney said resettled refugees get income support, free integration services and job search programs, all of which the government is increasing. He also said there is a network of non-profit groups who also help.

"There's quite an array of public services available to people," he said.

The Conservatives also argue good health-care benefits attract bogus refugee claims, and those people are able to take advantage while they wait for their claims to be processed.

Tyndall said the government is playing politics.

"The government has used this issue to divide Canadians, pitting those who are dissatisfied with their own health coverage against refugees," he said.

"Canadians are smarter than this. This is an attack on our entire health-care system."

The government estimates that the cuts will save about $20 million a year for the next five years. Kenney said the lion's share of that will be on the end of coverage for failed refugee claims.

One Ottawa doctor says it's ridiculous to presume refugees come to Canada because of health care.

Dr. Parisa Rezaiefar, who fled Iran more than 20 years ago, says refugees come to survive and often aren't given a choice as to where they'll end up.

"The interim federal health program isn't a charity," an emotional Rezaiefar told close to 200 people gathered in the midday sun.

"It's an investment."

Critics argue that the cuts fail to take into account the fact that refugees arrive in Canada suffering from the ill-effects of malnutrition, violence and in some cases torture and require sustained medical assistance they can't afford on their own.

They also say that denying refugees access to medications like insulin for diabetes or inhalers to treat asthma will be far more costly to the health care system down the road.

“This government’s decision to eliminate up front care for refugee claimants will inevitably lead to undiagnosed and untreated problems, and in turn greater health complications and higher costs to our health-care system," said Liberal health critic Hedy Fry.

"In addition, as is the case with many of the Conservative cuts, it will simply download responsibilities on the provinces and territories, which will now bear greater costs for refugee health-care."

According to a report released Monday, Canada, along with the United States, resettled four-fifths of UN refugees last year.

What's the point if when they get here they are abandoned? asked Mado Mushimiyimana, who works at a downtown Ottawa clinic that serves a high number of refugees.

"You should let them die where they are (rather) than come to be killed silently in this country," she said.