4 Reasons Why the Governments Plan to Appeal the Refugee Health Cuts Decision is Dead Wrong
Refugees and their advocates joined an interesting mix of doctors, provincial politicians, and lawyers this month to cheer a 268-page decision from Justice Anne Mactavish. The Federal Court ruled that the June 2012 refugee healthcare cuts went against Section 12 of the Charter and constituted “cruel and unusual” treatment for claimants and their children that “shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency.”
It’s a moral indictment more than two years in the making, but it was quickly overshadowed by rumour—then confirmation—that the government would appeal the decision. Just like that, the four month window given by the Federal Court to amend the policy will be shattered.
Politically, it may be smart for the government to seek vindication from a higher court—and to hope that judicial timelines will keep the issue from the spotlight in the lead up to next year’s federal election—but morally, the appeal is reprehensible. Here are four reasons why.
1. We know that the cuts were supposed to be way worse, so there’s no moral high ground here.
The government consistently tells us that the health cuts only affect failed refugee claimants and those from European and other “safe” countries. This makes it easier to justify the cuts as a vehicle to save money and deter “bogus” refugees in search of free healthcare. But it’s not just failed claimants and other politically expedient scapegoats who are denied needed care.
Supplemental health benefits at the same level afforded those on social assistance were previously granted temporarily to privately sponsored refugees, many of whom start over with nothing. The June 2012 cuts stripped their coverage for medications and other supplemental care, effectively leaving potentially catastrophic and unforeseen additional expenses to the volunteer groups who already need to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 to sponsor a refugee family. According to correspondence and documents released through an Access to Information request, these same supplemental cuts were intended for refugees hand-picked to come to Canada by the federal government. This was cancelled after a last-minute plea by bureaucrats to the minister after he had dismissed warnings eight months earlier that the policy proposal was flawed.
2. Ignoring voices from the frontlines of refugee settlement and care is irresponsible and arrogant.
When the Canadian Medical Association Journal runs a scathing editorial calling on the government to do the “decent thing” and repeal the cuts, it’s wise to take notice of their arguments. When 20 national medical associations—groups like the Canadian Nurses Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada—join the outcry, it’s time to start questioning the roll-out of the policy and how it might have gone wrong. When the Canadian Council of Refugees, every provincial premier, and the Canadian National Sponsorship Agreement Association (including churches and other religious communities across the country who sponsor refugees) also speak out against the cuts, it’s time to humbly accept the verdict of the Federal Court challenge.
3. The government’s claims of taxpayer savings don’t add up.
When first introducing the health cuts, the government said that savings to Canadian taxpayers would be $20 million a year. This was the catalyst for the 59 Cents Campaign for Refugee Healthcare, an initiative started out of Canadian Mennonite University urging all Canadians to send 59 cents—the cost per Canadian for the life-saving program—to the Prime Minister. Adding to the argument against the strange claim of massive savings, the total cost of the refugee health program before the cuts took effect was less than 0.05 per cent of public health spending.
Justice Mactavish’s found no evidence of an overall tax savings, as the costs are simply downloaded onto provinces. Most provinces have stepped in to provide coverage on humanitarian grounds, and they also shoulder the increased cost to public hospitals when emergency rooms become the only place to turn. One doctor explained that instead of a $30-a-month bill for pills to treat a condition, taxpayers are now on the line for the several-thousand-dollar bill for an ER visit and hospital admission when the condition is left untreated. The fact that this is sometimes the case for children of refugee claimants is an argument Justice Mactavish emphasized in her ruling. The impact on children also directly contravenes our international commitments under the Geneva Convention which stipulates that children living within our borders have a right to access healthcare, regardless of nationality or origin.
4. Because the human cost alone should stop them in their tracks.
As part of the Federal Court challenge, lawyers documented cases in which refugee claimants’ health was severely at stake. A failed claimant from Colombia was unable to access an operation after his retina detached and another was denied insulin for his diabetes although he could not be sent home due to a moratorium on deportations to Afghanistan for safety reasons.
Doctors, journalists, policy organizations, refugee coalitions and sponsoring groups continue to document the human cost. Pregnant women suffering pre-eclampsia, suicidal teenagers struggling with PTSD, asthmatic children without access to needed inhalers, patients with epilepsy or suffering a heart attack—even those with fresh wounds of the persecution they’re escaping or who need prosthetic limbs—these are just some examples of people who lost coverage in 2012. After two years of radio silence in the face of desperate life and death situations, their struggle was finally recognized at the Federal Court. Any attempt to skirt the four-month window given for policy reform is a slap in the face to those who are already forced to choose between money they don’t have and their life. The government’s decision to appeal is, literally, dead wrong.