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Refugees Sue Canada for Health Insurance

(CN) - Doctors, lawyers and refuge-seekers sued Canada, claiming the government's plan to strip refugees of health insurance coverage is unconstitutional.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and three refugee claimants filed an application for judicial review in the Federal Court of Canada.

They claim the government's denial of health insurance coverage violates domestic and international law. Named as respondents are the Attorney General of Canada and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

The applicants claim the government altered the terms of the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) last year, and the alterations "have threatened the health of the individual applicants as well as refugee claimants and privately sponsored refugees generally."

"The IFHP was designed as an interim measure to provide basic health, vision and dental insurance to resettled refugees, detainees, trafficked persons and to refugee claimants up until the time they were either accepted and eligible for provincial health care or their claim was refused and they left Canadian territory and jurisdiction," the application states.

The government acknowledged in 2011 that the program was "inspired by Canada's international obligations toward persons seeking its protection, a commitment to protect their health, a desire to protect the Canadian public from infectious diseases and an undertaking to ease the strain on provincial and territorial health systems," according to the application.

The program had an annual per-capita cost of $552 in 2009.

But last year, without warning or consultation, the government instituted "deep cuts" to the program as a cost-saving measure and to deter "bogus claims."

The individual applicants, Daniel Garcia Rodrigues, Amada Awatt and Hanif Ayubi, are refuge-seekers.

Awatt fled to Canada from Iraq in 1999. His asylum claim was denied, but he was spared being removed when the government placed a moratorium on removals in 2003. He suffers from Wilson Disease, "a genetic disorder that prevents the body from getting rid of extra copper," according to the application. He lost his health coverage when the changes took effect in June 2012. He works as a minimum wage laborer and can't afford to pay for medical services.

"The changes to the IFHP have thus resulted in a threat to Applicant Awatt's life and health as well as considerable psychological stress," the application states.

Garcia Rodrigues, of Colombia, also was denied asylum. He was refused an operation to repair a retinal detachment because he was no longer covered under the health program. His doctor later agreed to perform the operation "at a fraction of the cost" as more delays would have cost him his sight.

Applicant Hanif Ayubi, a diabetic, fled Afghanistan in 2001 "in fear of the Taliban," the application states. Before Canada's program was revamped, he was supplied with insulin and medical care. But when the changes were instituted, he lost his coverage and now relies on free samples of insulin from a clinic in Ottawa.

"His health has been put at risk and his situation has been extremely worrisome for him since June 30, 2012," the application states.

The document outlines more than three dozen accounts of patients who had their coverage cut off, which have "had a particularly severe impact on children and pregnant women."

"Instances of adverse health consequences will continue to proliferate," the application states. "The consequences of the lapse, denial or delay of urgent and essential health care coverage for refugee claimants and privately sponsored refugees under the IFHP are that health problems go untreated until they become emergencies."

The applicants are represented by Lorne Waldman and Jacqueline Swaisland of Waldman & Associates in Toronto.

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