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MDs planning nationwide protests against cuts in refugee care

It is almost a year since the federal government cut the health care coverage Canada provided to refugees under the Interim Federal Health Program, but a physicians' group is determined to remind Canadians - and the government - of the impact that decision has had.

Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care (CDRC), a group that was vocal in opposing the cuts a year ago, is organizing a National Day of Action on June 17 that will include demonstrations across the country. By May 13, protests had been planned for Vancouver, Saskatoon, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.

"We had between 500 and 600 health care workers demonstrate in Toronto last year," says Dr. Philip Berger, a CDRC spokesperson. "We're a lot better organized this year, so we're expecting a better turnout." Berger said this year's day of action is also gaining some high-profile backing.

For instance, the University of Toronto medical school, while acknowledging that it cannot take a position on political issues, has advised faculty and training supervisors that some U of T medical students and residents may want to attend the Toronto demonstration. "We should facilitate this," Dr. Salvatore Spadafora, the vice-dean of post-graduate medical education, stated in a memo posted on the CDRC website.

More than 20 groups representing health care and medical personnel, including the CMA, Royal College and Canadian Nurses Association, publicly opposed the cuts last year. In June 2012, for instance, the CMA was one of eight groups to sign a joint open letter to Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship and immigration. It stated: "Are we as a country willing to risk the health of a pregnant mother who is receiving required medications before June 30 [2012] by telling her she is no longer eligible after June 30?"

Berger, the chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said the impact of the federal cuts has been particularly noticeable in Ontario because 60% of Canada's refugee claims are made there. He said the CDRC has documented numerous cases in which claimants have been denied care because of the change in federal coverage.

Berger said the government targeted refugees by saying they were receiving "gold-plated" care, a definition he described as "a joke."

"Refugees receive the same coverage as social assistance recipients," he said. "Life-saving medication and prenatal care is not gold-plated health care."

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