The warnings were loud and clear. Ottawa’s cuts to health care benefits for asylum seekers would needlessly endanger lives and cost a whole lot more in the long run.
That was two years ago. Now, as the Star’s Nicholas Keung reports, since that time admission rates at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for the children of some refugees or failed claimants’ have doubled. The finding, taken from a recent study, suggests that parents who cannot access government health care are delaying a doctor’s visit until their child is very ill. This is both tragic and fundamentally unnecessary.
Published in the Public Library of Science Journal, the study looked at two six-month periods, immediately before and after June of 2012 when the cuts began. Researchers found that among migrant children, Sick Kids’ hospital admissions jumped from 6.4 per cent to 12 per cent. As the report’s co-author, Dr. Alexander Caudarella, notes, “If they don’t have health insurance, they present themselves later to the doctors. By then, the kids are sicker.”
It’s a national embarrassment. The federal government claimed that the cuts were intended to block bogus refugees from benefiting from Canada’s largesse, saving $100 million over five years. But in reality, the government has killed a humane federal program and downloaded much of its costs onto the provinces.
In doing so, Ottawa has created a needlessly complicated and expensive patchwork system that helps some, but not others. Prime Minister Stephen Harper should do the decent thing and reinstate federally funded health care coverage for asylum seekers.
Indeed, as the study at Sick Kids shows, ignoring an illness only leads to greater health problems, which means expensive hospital stays. (And of course, Ontario and other provinces that have stepped in to fill the gap ultimately pay those bills.)
In their study, researchers analyzed emergency room visits, admission rates, reason for admission and financial records. They found the number of emergency visits by refugee children declined from 173 before the cuts to 142 after the program was killed.
Alarmingly, hospital admissions doubled, with the top three diagnoses focusing on sickle cell anemia, epilepsy and appendicitis. Among other hospital patients, the top admissions were for pneumonia, fractures and sickle cell anemia.
During the one-year period (Ontario began covering the costs last December) Sick Kids absorbed the $131,615 in outstanding costs. That’s just one hospital with a compassionate care policy. “We believe every child deserves equitable access to care and no child in Canada should be left out,” said Dr. Denis Daneman, Sick Kid’s pediatrician in chief.
At Women’s College Hospital’s refugee health centre, its medical director, Dr. Meb Rashid, says the new, limited coverage under the federal system is so complicated that some doctors just won’t treat these patients. “It means a lot more work and there’s a cost to that work,” Rashid says.
Until Ontario’s coverage began in December, many sick refugee claimants were hit with huge medical bills. Even now, certain delays in payment mean that some doctors won’t accept them as patients.
Despite the horror stories, federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has not budged on Ottawa’s refusal to the fix the widespread problems.
In a letter published in the Star last January, Alexander accused the Ontario government of undermining federal efforts to stop spending money on bogus refugees. “The province is, in fact, creating an incentive for bogus claimants from democratic countries to falsely claim refugee status; forcing genuine refugees and Canadians to wait in line behind fraudsters for health services,” he wrote.
Tell that to the child with untreated appendicitis.
Ontario was right to offer health coverage. Ottawa’s supposed fear of bogus refugees bilking Canada taxpayers has created little more than faux savings and a needless health care mess.