05/13/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Toronto Values Health Before Immigration Status


Last week, Toronto City Council made history by voting in favour of putting people's health before their immigration status.  Canadians may be surprised to learn that the universal healthcare system they consider a shining beacon of our humanity denies healthcare services to an estimated 500,000 people in Canada, of which over 100,000 live in Toronto. A report prepared for the Toronto Board of Health outlines the health crisis for these medically uninsured individuals who reside in Toronto.

Working and volunteering in some of the few clinics where patients can be seen without health cards in Toronto, I have heard the same stories time and time again. I remember the pregnant woman who came to Canada as a live-in caregiver and went months without prenatal care because she lost her status and was worried she would be deported if she went to a health clinic. I remember the middle-aged man who was asked to pay several hundred dollars up front at the registration desk of an emergency room and left because he couldn't afford it allowing his condition to worsen. I remember the young boy who needed heart surgery but had to wait three months while his health deteriorated simply because of the waiting period for new immigrants. 

They avoid healthcare because they are afraid they will have to pay. They hope and pray that their health will improve and they won't need any health care services. They get turned away from clinics and hospitals after being asked for money, and if they do go in, they usually leave with massive bills. The system tells them over and over that their health does not matter, all that matters is their immigration status.

In OntarioQuebec and British Columbia, new immigrants who have already waited years to get their immigration status have to wait three months after arriving before they get access to provincial health insurance. This means that a new immigrant could have a heart attack days before getting his health card and have no coverage for his emergency room visit, surgery or hospitalization. Due to recent cuts to refugee health care, claimants from so-called 'safe countries' no longer have access to even basic healthcare services.

Recent changes to the refugee claims process speed up processing times to a few months which will likely lead to an increase in rejected claims due to lack of time to gather evidence. This will only add to the numbers of undocumented and uninsured in our country. Those who are completely undocumented have absolutely no access to healthcare and there have been widely publicized cases of people in Toronto who have died of cancer and been denied access to life-saving surgery or chemotherapy. 

Toronto City Council, in its historic decision, has decided to do something about this for those without health insurance that live in our city. Council voted in favour of abolishing the three-month waiting period for new immigrants and also rescinding the recent cuts to the refugee health care program. Not only this, but the council recognized the need to increase funding to the community health centres and primary care clinics already providing care to this population, some using entirely volunteer providers, and others doing so with budgets that can only support a sliver of the total uninsured population.

They also call on hospitals to remove the exorbitant registration fees that serve as a major barrier for people without insurance who may be turned away from care by administrative staff at the emergency room without ever seeing a nurse or doctor. While all this will mean a lot of hard work to advocate to the provinces and feds to make it all happen, these are all very important steps in the right direction. If we are to truly live in a society that claims to provide universal health care, we must provide it to all people residing in Canada in their hour of need. This is literally a matter of life and death, and in this case, the city of Toronto has voted in favour of life. I have never been more proud to call this city my home. 

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