Canada’s refugee health care program still falls short

May 17, 2017

By Y.Y. Brandon Chen and Vanessa Gruben Waterloo Region Record |

Despite changes to Canada’s refugee health care program in April 2016, many people still don’t have adequate access to care, according to a series of interviews we conducted recently with refugee service providers in Ottawa.

Health care for refugees in Canada is the responsibility of the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), and it has had some tumultuous years. In June 2012, the federal government made significant cuts to the program, leaving many refugees and refugee claimants without access to publicly-funded health care,

Healthcare advocates challenged the cuts in federal court. In 2014, the court found the cuts violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as they were “cruel and unusual.” Following a change in government, the IFH was fully restored to its pre-2012 form in April 2016.

The reinstatement of IFHP was widely applauded — but it hasn’t lived up to its promise. The program, in theory, provides all refugee claimants with hospital and medical care coverage, and provides all refugees and refugee claimants with supplementary coverage similar to that received by low-income Canadians.

But our interviews with refugee service providers reveal that, despite reinstatement, the IFHP remains plagued by “a legacy of confusion,” as one practitioner put it. Because of the cuts in previous years, many walk-in clinics, pharmacies and specialists continue to deny services to refugees and refugee claimants, based on the false assumption that they’re not covered by IFHP.

Even when service providers are aware of IFHP’s restoration, some are hesitant to see patients due to the program’s perceived complexity. To be reimbursed by the program, practitioners must register with the program, which many report as a cumbersome and slow process.

Once registered, many providers complain about having trouble figuring out which services and treatments are covered. And the time it takes for providers to be paid by IFHP seems to be inconsistent: while some providers have received reimbursement quickly, others have had to wait up to 90 days.

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