Lasha Morningstar

WE ARE ONE

July 21, 2014

It was hitting 3 a.m. CBC radio kept me company. Half listening, my mind tackled a myriad of mini-problems.

The man being interviewed on the radio raised his voice. I started to listen. Impassioned, at times strident, obviously a medical doctor, he told the interviewer the story of a patient. A legitimate refugee from Africa, mother of three children, she was joyfully expecting her fourth wee one.

The family was stunned when they were told they would have to pay $2,600 for the cost of the impending birth.

Why? The federal Conservative government in June 2012 had just passed modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program. This created two tiers of health coverage between refugee claimants who are from designated countries of origin. That mother was in the wrong tier. She, who desperately wanted to have her baby, was forced to abort it.

The physician reiterated the point that under the former regulations, her medical care for her wanted child would be covered.

Rage burned the cobwebs from my mind. Having a baby – a healthy baby – is part of the Canadian medical ethos and system. I felt as though I had tumbled into the United States.

HARDEST HIT

Dr. Philip Berger, medical director, Inner City Health Program at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto (not the radio physician) told me, "The thing for the public to understand is there is no such thing as a bogus sick child or a bogus pregnant woman. And those are the two groups that are being hit hardest.

"A woman who is pregnant needs regular monitoring. A healthy pregnancy means a child is being born healthy. A sick kid can't wait.

"Minister Chris Alexander (federal minister of citizenship and immigration) keeps saying they are bogus refugee claimants, abusing the system, coming here to take advantage. There is absolutely no evidence of that at all."

Berger speaks with the passion and fluency of a man who's advocated for his patients no matter their country of origin. He sees their future, saying some of them will become successful Canadian citizens.

"They do the legal process, they are lawfully within our borders, following the rules, doing what they are supposed to be doing while waiting their refugee hearing," says Berger. "He (Alexander) refers to them as bogus before the hearing has been made."

Berger says his fellow doctors at inner city hospitals who are seeing these people would never charge them.

"St. Michael's Hospital certainly won't charge." But the crunch can come when specialists are needed and the x-ray facility or the lab or radiologists demand payment.

"So we are handcuffed, shackled as to what we can do," explains Berger.

REVERSE THE CUTS

In the end, says the refugee medical advocate, "we want reversal of cuts and return to the previous system which was a fair and compassionate system."

They have requested meetings with Jason Kenney and Chris Alexander over the past two years -"the previous minister and current minister to meet with us to provide the coverage that may satisfy some of the objections of the federal government," says Berger.

"There are eight national health associations – the Canadian Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada which is a specialist association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Nurses Association and four other health associations making this request.

"We wrote Jason Kenney three times expressing sincere concerns we have regarding health care and asked to meet with him. He never even had the courtesy to respond to any of those letters."

CONTEMPT FOR LEADERS

"Never has a minister shown such contempt for leadership in health professions in this country that I have seen in 40 years of practising medicine."

Berger helped co-found The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and they turned to the Federal Court of Canada to act as co-litigant in a constitutional challenge to the refugee health cuts.

A happy ending. Federal Court's Justice Anne Mactavish wrote in a June 4 decision that the cutbacks constitute "cruel and unusual" treatment and should be struck down.

"The 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health program potentially jeopardizes the health, the safety an 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.

"They violate section 12 of the Charter."

NATION OF IMMIGRANTS

Who among us would deny medical care for the vulnerable souls who have sought sanctuary in our country? Unless we have pure First Nations blood coursing through our veins, each and every one of us or our ancestors came from somewhere else.

Let us open our hearts and share our medical care. And let no mother ever again be forced to have an abortion because she came from the "wrong" country.

(Lasha Morningstar lasha@wcr.ab.ca)