OTTAWA – Immigration officials are working furiously to finalize contingency plans for refugee health care coverage in the event the government loses a court battle this week on how much coverage refugee claimants ought to receive.
The long-running fight over the existing program is before the Federal Appeal Court on Thursday with the government arguing it needs more time to comply with last summer’s Federal Court decision that the current program is unconstitutional.
In her ruling, Justice Anne McTavish savaged the coverage system imposed by the Conservatives in 2012, saying it amounted to cruel and unusual treatment.
“The 2012 modifications to the interim federal health program potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency,” she wrote.
She gave the government four months to create a charter-proof plan – that deadline is Nov. 4.
The government has appealed the decision, but in the meantime is asking for a stay, so that it doesn’t have to impose a new system before the court finishes deliberating on the old one.
Officials would not reveal details of the contingency plans, saying they’re not finished.
“The government is working on various contingency plans but intends to vigorously appeal this ruling,” a government source said on the condition of anonymity as the matter remains before the court.
Justices often will suspend their decisions in charter cases for a year to give government enough time to create new policy.
But in this case, McTavish decided to speed up the process, ruling that while a certain amount of bureaucratic disruption is inevitable, lives were at risk.
In the court documents, the government outlines all the steps it would need to take to implement a new system, including getting it approved by cabinet and making sure border officers and immigration officials are up to speed on the changes.
The four months it was given weren’t enough, the government argues.
“Should changes be implemented Nov. 4, 2014, the training process will likely be incomplete, potentially resulting in eligible clients being without IFHP certificates or being given incorrect IFHP coverage,” one argument for more time suggests.
But the lead lawyer for the refugees said four months is plenty of time.
“The government has various alternatives and one of them would be to just return to the situation before 2012,” Lorne Waldman said in an interview.
The interim federal health program was developed in the wake of the Second World War to meet the needs of refugees coming to Canada, which at the time had a private health-care system.
Over the years, the program was expanded and prior to the 2012 changes, the federal government covered all manner of health-care expenses for those awaiting refugee claims until they were eligible to apply for provincial health-care coverage.
But citing a need to cut costs and bring health care for refugee claimants in line with what ordinary Canadians get, the government instituted sweeping changes in 2012. They essentially reduced what taxpayers pay for to the bare minimum, depending on the nature of the refugee claim and the care being sought.
The cases of one of the men who filed the lawsuit against the government illustrates the differences.
Hanif Ayubi is a failed refugee claimant from Afghanistan who could not be deported because there is a moratorium on removals to that country.
Prior to the changes, he had full coverage of all his medical needs to manage his diabetes. After, he received no coverage of medical supplies as he is a failed claimant, though the minister did intervene to make sure his doctor’s appointments are paid for.
He now receives free samples of his required drugs through a community health-care centre.
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