A big ol’ flip flop: Reversals to refugee health coverage

I have written previously about the Conservative’s recent cuts to refugee health coverage — cuts that will deny refugees and other protected persons access to urgent medical care for such things as diabetes and heart disease.

The proposed cuts brought out the medical community with surprising force and unity, and even Amnesty International suggested that Canada may be in breach of international legal obligations, something refugee rights groups had long argued.

And then, a breakthrough. Late in the week, on Friday, June 29 (the day before the cuts to refugee health coverage were to go into effect), the Conservatives quietly changed the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website. The updated information now claimed that one group of refugee claimants would still be provided with the supplements in the original health coverage.

[Only government-sponsored refugees will continue to receive supplemental coverage, which suggests that any refugees not specifically chosen by the government are not worthy of basic health care. These include privately sponsored refugees, as well as those who arrive on their own — that is, those to whom we have the greatest legal responsibility.]

And so the reversal to some refugee health coverage came quietly, without announcement or acknowledgement by the Conservative government. Still, refugee rights groups and the medical community managed to pick up on it. They immediately applauded the partial change, while still pushing for full reversal of the policy.

And then came the bizarre response from the Conservatives.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney denied that any last-minute change had been made. Opponents to the cuts, who had been following the Conservative’s policy closely since the beginning, were befuddled, to say the least. The denial was ridiculous, but Kenney held fast: “It was always our intention,” he claimed, “to ensure that government-assisted refugees would get assistance for certain medications.” The Conservative government was not reversing its policy, he said, just “clarifying” it.

There is a wonderful motif in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in which citizens of the totalitarian-governed Oceania are made to believe that their country has always been at war with their current enemy, no matter how recent the current war. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia;” goes the famous line, “therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Later in the novel, it is Eastasia with whom Oceania has “always been at war.” The past, writes Orwell, is alterable; and the past has never been altered.

I would like to hear Minister Kenney’s take on what Orwell was getting at here.

Oceania has not always been at war with Eurasia. Kenney’s department has never mentioned, not even once, that supplemental benefits would be maintained for one group of refugees and not others — they had always intended for cuts to all refugees. When Kenney’s department sent out notices in May to all beneficiaries of the coming health services cuts, the mail-out included all 14,000 current government-sponsored refugees, whom the Conservatives now claim had never been targeted. This was not done in error, for the notice reads: “As of June 30, 2012, benefits will be reduced for all current and future beneficiaries” (emphasis mine). Earlier in the notice, the definition of beneficiaries clearly includes “protected persons, including resettled refugees.”

The Conservative’s explanation? Apparently there was “some ambiguity” to the “original language.” No, my dear minister, there was never any ambiguity. Just one giant flip flop.


Please visit these organizations for more information:

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care

Canadian Council for Refugees

For thoughts from a doctor who works at a refugee clinic and who was originally a refugee himself, have a look at this editorial. Dr. Tarek Loubani tackles, among other things, the persistent bogey of the so-called bogus refugee: “Before our run for safety, I don’t remember my mother comparing health care brochures from different countries. I do remember her crying, exhausted and terrorized. Those seeking refugee status do not migrate to take advantage of a health-care system. They migrate to flee violence and oppression.”

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