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Abandoning a Just Society

June 2012

By Andrew Boozary

CDM Student Board Member


As the son of a refugee and victim of torture, and a future physician, the drastic reduction of health benefits for refugees under the Interim Federal Health Program hits all too close to home. In the eye of political turmoil, many people who choose to seek refuge in Canada see their exit as a revolving door, clinging to the belief that they will soon return home.

My father was no different. Having given up much of his youth for a political cause, he was rewarded only with missing friends and sophisticated threats on his life. He arrived without the slightest sense of entitlement, and as is usually the requisite for refugees, a resilient disposition. On Monday, June 18, health professionals and concerned citizens across the country protested the changes to the IFHP that would strip most refugees of even the most basic coverage afforded to Canadians. White coats and blue collars in a host of cities rallied against ‘a Canada they do not know’, and in support of an identity they shouldn’t have to remember.

The federal government recently announced it would be changing the Interim Federal Health Program to cut most health care benefits for refugees. This includes pharmaceutical care, but also cuts basic primary health care for many classes of refugees. In some cases, refugees will only receive basic emergency response or medicine where a public health concern is identified.

Under the new rules, refugees with preventable health issues that could be detected and dealt with early, will be left until later when their issues are more expensive and more devastating. Continuing to provide primary health care would be more equitable, and much more cost-effective.

Refugees are not health tourists. Foreign to the language and culture of Canada, my father quickly picked up on the social ethic that unites our country- one that places acceptance over tolerance, and the shared view that opportunity has as much to do with support as it does with freedom.

We never spoke about it much, but every so often, I find myself thinking about what it would be like to be uprooted from wherever one calls ‘home’. For so many refugees, there is no going back. No matter how vastly improved  your new life may be, you cannot discount the personal tax of not being able to return to your birthplace. Not even for the burial of your own mother.

The Hon. Jason Kenney has sold the changes to the IFHP as cost-saving measures that will protect Canadians from ‘refugees’ who treat Canada as a ‘doormat’ and ensure fairness for all Canadians. The story that the Minister of Citizenship has weaved together seems to go something like this: “Canada’s generous and overburdened health care system has been under siege by bogus refugees, who abuse the system to receive the milk and honey health benefits not offered ordinary citizens.”

Canadians and health care workers from across the country simply refuse to buy it. Kenney seemed flabbergasted that physicians would adamantly oppose the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, and believes that Canadians are best served when physicians stick to ‘accurate diagnoses and fact’. As he may now know, both facts and principles are stubborn things. Mounting evidence of the importance of providing health care for all, and an unwavering belief in providing essential care for this vulnerable population spurred a National Day of Action, and efforts will continue to fight these changes.

If it is legislation and policy that pens our narrative as a nation of immigrants, how exactly are we choosing to write in those who seek refuge? When we speak of integrity, there is an opportunity for Canada to be a true beacon of hope. Jeopardizing the health of the most vulnerable abandons that ideal. On almost all accounts, the changes to the Interim Federal Health Program are quite simply poor health policy. And in beginning to withhold health care from those most in need, our very own health system may find itself in a ‘race to the bottom’ - where

Canadians expect less and less from our government, instead of working to take better care of each other, and seek to offer essential, and often life-saving benefits such as pharmaceutical coverage to all Canadians.

Doctors orchestrating a day of action as advocates for a marginalized population is not ‘grandstanding”, or altogether new. Michel Foucault wrote that ‘the the primary obligation of the physician is political. The struggle against disease begins with a war against bad policy. Man will be totally cured only if he is first liberated.” For those seeking freedom and security, we can only strive for Canada to deliver on that hope. The prognosis is only bettered when Canadians from across the country hold Parliament accountable for its prescriptions.

Andrew Boozary is a health policy fellow (MPP) at Princeton University and senior medical student at the University of Ottawa. He is currently serving on the Board of Canadian Doctors for Medicare.