07/19/2012 10:09 EDT | Updated 09/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Hamilton doctors protest at federal announcement

Two McMaster doctors interrupted a federal funding announcement in Hamilton on Thursday to voice their concerns over refugee health care.

Dr. Christian Kraeker and Dr. Tim O'Shea joined three others to interrupt a presentation by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq at McMaster University.

Aglukkaq had just announced $7 million for bone health research projects when Kraeker and O'Shea stood to protest recent cuts to a federal program that provides health-care benefits to refugee claimants.

O'Shea asked why the federal government hasn't met with the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Health Care, a national collective that formed this year in response to cuts to refugee benefits.

Kraeker later stood to tell a story about a local seven-year-old refugee seen in Hamilton's refugee health clinic, where both Kraeker and O'Shea see patients.

The boy had an epileptic seizure because he couldn't get his medication, which would have cost less than a dollar a day, Kraeker said. He was rushed to the emergency room.

“I don't think it's a stretch to say someone will die from this,” O'Shea said.

About the changes

The federal government announced in April that it would strip both government-assisted refugees and those awaiting adjudication of their claims of drug, dental and vision coverage as of June 30.

That was revised so that government-assisted refugees would be covered, but those awaiting a decision will have no drug, dental or vision benefits.

Now, all refugees who are not government-assisted refugees have lost access to medical, vision and dental. For some, health insurance is restricted to urgent or essential care.

Others from “designated countries of origin” — countries the government does not feel should be producing refugees — will not be covered even in urgent situations unless their condition is a risk to public health or security.

The policy is so complicated that local health care providers, including pharmacists, are denying benefits to all refugees, O'Shea said.

Aglukkaq said Thursday that cutting health benefits to failed refugee claimants is only fair and what Canadian taxpayers would expect.

She added that she doesn't think many Canadians were even aware that for years, those denied entry were covered by tax dollars.

Keeping attention on the issue

The Canadian group is interrupting Conservative events across the country. Thursday's incident was the first in Hamilton.

“We want to keep this issue in the public consciousness,” O'Shea said.

The protests will continue, Kraeker said. Local doctors are also collecting stories of refugees negatively affected by the change.

“This is our job,” Kraeker said. “We went to medical school to care for vulnerable populations.”

A protester was arrested briefly earlier this week after interrupting Immigration Minister Jason Kenney at a Conservative party barbecue in Edmonton.

—With files from Canadian Press