TORONTO - Ontario is providing health care coverage for refugee claimants because the federal government abdicated its responsibility, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Friday, earning a quick rebuke from Ottawa.
"The reality is our health providers are going to help people anyway," said Wynne.
Defending Ontario's decision to extend health care benefits to newcomers who were cut off by the federal government 18 months ago, Wynne said it would be wrong to leave some refugee claimants without access to care.
"We have, as a province, said this is unacceptable," she said. "The people who have been getting the services through the federal program will now be eligible to get services through a provincial program, because it is irresponsible of us ... as a society not to provide these services."
Federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander issued a release calling Ontario's move "reckless" policy.
"Ontario's decision threatens to undermine the remarkable success of reforms we made last year to a refugee determination system that was widely acknowledged to be broken," he said.
"Genuine refugees are getting the protection they need much sooner and failed asylum seekers are being removed much faster ... and Canada's generosity is no longer being abused."
Health Minister Deb Matthews took aim at Alexander for calling Ontario's move a waste of money, and lashed out at the federal minister for saying the province was funding "bogus" refugee claimants.
"If they are so-called bogus, then it's his department that is responsible for that refugee policy and system," she said.
Most newcomers without health coverage don't have family doctors, so they often end up in hospital emergency rooms, a much more expensive place to treat people, added Matthews.
"In the end we were paying anyway," she said, "but we were paying more than we would have had we provided better early care."
Ottawa trimmed medical benefits for newcomers to the bare bones in 2012 and cut some refugee claimants off completely, save for threats to public health. Ontario reinstated the benefits Jan. 1.
The premier said the federal move caused a lot of confusion about who is eligible for care, and noted there is still a three-month waiting list for coverage except in some emergencies.
The federal cuts left most immigrants with basic, essential health care, but trimmed supplementals such as vision and dental care.
However, rejected refugee claimants — and refugee claimants from countries the government considers safe — will be eligible for care only when they pose a threat to public health.
Alexander has accused the province of intruding into an area of federal responsibility.
"This will force Ontario taxpayers and their families to line up for care behind failed asylum seekers, and it will make Canada - and Ontario in particular - a bigger magnet for bogus asylum seekers."
Ontario is on its own to foot the bill, warned Alexander.
"The sooner the Ontario government gets serious about protecting Ontario taxpayers and stops undermining the success of our national refugee reforms, the better and fairer it will be for all Canadians, including legal immigrants and genuine refugees," he said.
Matthews said other provinces are also trying to deal with the federal health care cuts to some refugees.
"Ontario of course attracts the bulk, 55 per cent of refugees are in Ontario, so the problem is biggest for us."
- With files from John Ward in Ottawa
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