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Physicians occupied MP’s office over cuts to refugee health care

Toronto physicians briefly occupied Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's Toronto constituency office Friday to protest the Conservative government's changes in health care coverage for refugee claimants.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A group of physicians briefly occupied a Conservative MP’s office Friday, demanding Ottawa rescind its planned cuts to refugees’ health-care coverage.

Outside the office of Joe Oliver, the Tories’ highest ranking member in the GTA, doctors from all disciplines echoed concerns that the denial of health-care access would increase health costs and jeopardize public health.

The protest by the 90 Toronto-area physicians was one of many organized by doctors across the country from British Columbia to Newfoundland against the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program that will come into effect June 30.

“The federal government would tell you that refugees are coming here for routine dental and vision care,” Dr. Philip Berger, head of St. Michael’s Hospital’s family medicine, said to the cheers of the protesting physicians, all in lab coats, waving placards.

“Someone coming out of a camp with an abscess and having lost her husband and two kids is not going to be running for a teeth cleaning when she sets foot in Canada,” Berger said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said the changes will save Ottawa $100 million over five years and discourage “unfounded” refugees from coming.

Earlier, Berger and a group of 30 physicians stormed into the Natural Resources minister’s office at Lawrence Ave. and Bathurst St., demanding to speak with Oliver, who was reportedly in Ottawa.

Protesters asked constituency assistant Steven Cooke to get the MP on the phone to relay their message to the Stephen Harper government.

“We just want to register our dissatisfaction,” Berger said. “We are not black-hooded G20 protesters.”

“I’m not phoning him,” said an apparently displeased Cooke, “because of the way you came in here.”

After a 10-minute stalemate, three police officers arrived to clear the office. The protesters dropped off a letter to Oliver before moving onto the street and distributing flyers to passersby.

“This is supposedly a cost-saving measure for the government, but the cost of delaying treatment will result in more emergency visits, more intensive care visits,” said pediatrician Anna Banerji, an Order of Ontario recipient.

“They say it’s a deterrent for refugees,” she added. “We have to stop the rhetoric. These refugees are some of the poorest people on earth. They come with the clothes on their backs and they cannot afford to go to see doctors.”

Under the proposed changes, accepted refugees and pending asylum seekers can only access hospital services, see doctors and nurses or get lab and diagnostic tests “if of an urgent or essential nature.”

Psychiatrist Abby Hershler, who is on maternity leave, said she was dismayed by the response of the MP’s staff.

“Everyone deserves to access public health care,” said Hershler, holding six-month-old Micah in her arms. “Children need access to health care. As a mother, this has caused me concern.”


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