Starting July 1, Canadians can expect to see something new on our streets: people begging for money to pay for medication or hospital care.

Canada, which prides itself on being more compassionate than its rough-and-tumble neighbour to the south, will soon have its very own underclass of people unable to obtain life-sustaining medication and treatment.

This is because, with no prior consultation with the provinces or health-care professionals, the federal government recently announced that it will make drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program – the health-care program for people seeking refugee status in Canada – effective June 30.

No medication will be provided to these refugee claimants unless there is a public-health-and-safety angle. So, for example, a woman who arrives on July 1 from Syria or Eritrea (or choose any country with a similar human-rights record) whose story of persecution is solid, and who is extremely likely to be recognized as a refugee once she has her hearing, will be denied medication if she is, say, diabetic, or has cancer or heart disease.

No hospital treatment will be provided to refused refugees. So, for example, claimants who receive a negative decision but cannot be removed right away because their country is viewed by the Canadian government as too dangerous (the current list includes Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan) will be denied hospital treatment for everything from kidney failure and cancer to broken limbs.

Why is the government doing this? Here are some of the rationales provided in various public statements:

“Health benefits for refugee claimants are more generous than for Canadians.” The government’s own figures belie this. Crunching the numbers in Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s background documents on the cuts gives an average per-person cost of $660 for the Interim Federal Health Program, barely 10 per cent of the $6,141 current per-capita cost for health and social services for Canadians.

Further, while it is true that some Canadians (unfortunately) do not benefit from prescription-drug insurance, most low-income Canadians have access through social-assistance programs or public-insurance plans such as the one in Quebec. Refugee claimants, however low their income, are not eligible for these programs.

Finally, Canadians who do not have prescription-drug insurance because they live in a province that does not offer it and they are working and do not receive social assistance may have coverage through their employment and, if not, can probably purchase it privately if they wish. Refugee claimants do not even receive a work permit for their first few months in Canada, so they cannot get coverage through employment and cannot afford to purchase private insurance.

“This government does not expect hard-working taxpaying Canadians to pay for benefits they do not receive.” It seems entirely possible to us that, if asked, most Canadians would not mind continuing to kick in $3 a year (the cost per Canadian of the Interim Federal Health Program before the cuts) to provide temporary medical care for vulnerable people arriving in Canada. No one seemed too upset about this program until Immigration Minister Jason Kenney started vocally criticizing it a few weeks ago.

The government will spend $28 million to commemorate the War of 1812. Were hard-working taxpaying Canadians ever asked whether they preferred paying for that rather than, say, essential health care?

“The budget.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada says it will save about $100 million over the next five years with these cuts. However, many health-care professionals view this as largely a transfer of costs to the provinces, because people denied life-sustaining medication and treatment – at least those who don’t wish to just curl up and die – will end up at hospital emergency rooms, where they will be treated at high cost and released until their next crisis.

In the final analysis, the federal government is putting lives at risk by cutting a program that already offers very modest benefits at a minimal cost.

“Had the War of 1812 ended differently, the Canada we know today would not exist,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in announcing the commemoration plan. These cuts to health care for the most vulnerable among us strike at the very heart of that Canada.

Paula Kline is executive director of the Montreal City Mission.

Rick Goldman is a lawyer and coordinator of the Montreal-based Committee to Aid Refugees

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