OTTAWA – Medication for children and prenatal care will be among the new federal health care benefits available to those awaiting a decision on their refugee claim — but only temporarily.
The new measures unveiled Tuesday will only be in effect until the federal government has exhausted its legal avenues in the ongoing battle over whether its health care coverage program for refugee claimants is unconstitutional.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said the government respects the role of the court, but disagrees with a court decision in July that invalidated the existing program, requiring a replacement to be devised.
“We’re only doing this, we hope, while our appeal is being heard,” Alexander said in an interview. “We will continue to fight to ensure taxpayers’ resources are respected in our refugee health program.”
Tuesday’s measures, however, do not go so far as to restore the comprehensive coverage that was in place prior to 2012 — a shortcoming critics say could put the Conservative government in contempt of court.
Earlier Tuesday, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers — which was part of the original court case — said that if the government didn’t reinstate the full program, they would challenge it anew.
Alexander said the government is aware of the risk of a new legal challenge but hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“I do hope that everyone who is involved in the refugee sector would return the focus to refugees themselves and successful asylum claimants; those are the people who deserve our support, who deserve our attention,” he said in an interview.
“Litigation to benefit people who are none of those things — neither here in good faith nor here as refugees — is, in my view, an unnecessary distraction.”
The temporary measures were released to comply with a July decision from the Federal Court that declared the interim federal health program put in place after 2012 unconstitutional.
That year, the Conservatives overhauled the system to create a tiered approach to paying for health care which drastically restricted the coverage available for certain classes of would-be refugees.
For example, those from so-called safe countries awaiting a decision on their claim only had access to coverage if it was a public health or safety emergency, while people making claims from other countries received basic health care as well.
Under the temporary measures program, both groups will be treated the same, though neither receive coverage for basic drug costs.
Three classes of claimants, however, will receive greatly expanded coverage: children under 19 years of age, pregnant women and those whose deportation from Canada is delayed because of risk in their home country.
Information provided by the government shows all claimants now have access to basic health care and medication — in the case of children, some supplemental benefits as well, though the details of those benefits weren’t immediately available.
The government can’t cherry-pick who gets what, opposition critics complained.
“It’s certainly not the spirit of the court ruling,” said NDP multiculturalism critic Andrew Cash. “And it underlines the fundamental question here, which is about Canadian values.”
Liberal immigration critic John McCallum said the court order made no mention of specific categories.
“The court ruling was a blanket order to restore the interim federal health care program or something equivalent to it,” said Liberal MP John McCallum.
“There was no statement they could put some in, take some out — there was an order to restore the whole thing.”
The temporary measures will cost about $4 million a year, Alexander said.
In making the changes to the program in 2012, the government argued it would save $100 million over five years.
The government also said that those waiting for a ruling on their refugee claims shouldn’t get better health care coverage than ordinary Canadians.
But they were taken to court by refugees who argued the changes put lives at risk and the Federal Court ultimately agreed.
“The 2012 modifications … potentially jeopardize the health, and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency,” Justice Anne Mactavish wrote in her ruling.
Though it’s customary in charter cases for the government to be given a year to implement new laws, Mactavish said that was too long when lives were at stake.
She had told the government they had four months — until midnight Tuesday — to make the changes.
The government appealed her decision and asked for a stay, but lost that argument.
A court date for the appeal has not been set.