02/25/2013 12:12 EST | Updated 04/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Doctors' group takes Ottawa to court over refugee health-care cuts

TORONTO - The lives of thousands of refugee claimants in Canada are being jeopardized by a federal government policy that is unconstitutional, says a group of doctors and lawyers taking Ottawa to court.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers launched a court challenge Monday, accusing the federal government of violating the charter and international obligations with its decision last year to change health-care coverage for refugee claimants.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney dismissed the claims as "totally ridiculous" and the work of "leftist activists."

"It's just part of an ongoing ideological campaign," Kenney said Monday after Question Period.

"Some of these are hard-core pressure groups and they have an ideological commitment to this and they'll have their day in court of course. This is a dog-bites-man story."

Kenney said the changes mostly affect "folks who are basically overstaying in Canada" who have been deemed not to be refugees. True refugees are still covered, he said.

The policy, which still gives most asylum seekers and all "legitimate refugees" health coverage is generous, Kenney said.

"But we have no legal, moral, political obligation to give taxpayer services to bogus asylum seekers, rejected claimants — people who are effectively illegal migrants."

Up until June 30, 2012, the federal government covered the costs of drugs and medical care — including dentistry and vision care — for refugee claimants until they had been in Canada long enough for provincial coverage to kick in or after their claims had been rejected.

But the government put an end to almost all supplemental health-care benefits, slashing coverage in some cases to care only when it was a public health emergency.

The changes depend on whether the claimant comes from a list of countries that Ottawa has deemed safe and where it is less likely someone will be persecuted.

Refugee claimants from those countries, including Mexico and Hungary, have no coverage for medical services or medications except when there is a public health or public safety concern.

Others still have most medical services covered, though the only medications that are covered for them are ones for conditions posing a threat to public health or safety.

Government-sponsored refugees saw no change to their health coverage.

The Conservatives say the changes will deter bogus refugee claims and ensure failed asylum seekers can't take advantage of Canada's free health care.

The doctors and lawyers say the cuts deny basic, emergency and life-saving medical care to thousands of refugee claimants lawfully seeking protection here.

"The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care has for months documented an escalating number of refugees being denied care," Dr. Philip Berger said Monday at a news conference to announce the court challenge.

"Pregnant women, children and refugees with chronic diseases are not showing up for appointments, even at clinics who would see them, (because) they're afraid of the costs."

People claiming refugee status are in Canada legally following protocols to apply for protection, the doctors say, as are those whose claims have been denied but cannot return to their home countries.

Hanif Ayubi is one of those people. He is from Afghanistan, and although his refugee claim was rejected he can't be sent home because there is a moratorium on removals to that country.

But under the changes to health-coverage he now can't get insulin for his Type 1 diabetes, the doctors say. He is being kept alive on free samples of insulin from a community medical clinic in Ottawa. He has a work permit and has been paying taxes, but does not earn enough to cover the cost of medication and tests.

The notice of application, filed Monday in Federal Court, alleges the policy violates several sections of the charter. It is cruel and unusual treatment, it puts the refugees' life and security of the person at risk and arbitrarily discriminates based on country of origin, the doctors allege.

The group suggests the policy is short-sighted, leaving health problems untreated due to prohibitive costs until they become emergencies, putting a greater strain on the health system.

"Hospitals must provide care at that time, but the costs of such care will ultimately be borne by the provincial health-care system and the Canadian taxpayer," the group says in its court filing.

"Providing emergency care at a hospital is far more costly than providing insurance coverage for preventive care."

The group also alleges in its court filing that the policy violates the United Nations' Refugee Convention — specifically articles that give them the right to physical security and that prohibit discrimination.

Berger, the chief of family medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said the immigration minister has ignored requests from nine national health associations to meet with him to discuss the impacts of the cuts.

"The minister has failed to respond or even acknowledge the communications — a measure of contempt rarely shown by government to the leadership of the health professions of Canada," he said.

Ana Curic, a spokeswoman for Kenney, said that is not true.

"The minister and his staff have met with several different health-care organizations, various doctors, as well as different hospitals across the country," she said.

The doctors said they plan to step up their campaign against the cuts this spring with protests and showing up at cabinet ministers' news conferences to press them on the policy.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version wrongly translated a comment in French by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney as "militant leftists."