Demonstrators carrying candles and placards walked through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Thursday (November 1) in continued protest of cuts to a federal health program for refugees.
The candlelight vigil was timed to coincide with the Latin American holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Protestors, some with their faces painted to mark the tradition, said the march was meant to signify the “death” of the former version of Canada’s Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP).
Tom Warren, an organizer with the grassroots group Sanctuary Health, referred to IFHP as a “zombie program”, following recent changes to the health-care coverage that was extended to refugees.
“Right now it exists for government-assisted refugees,” he said in an interview on East Hastings Street. “That’s a very small portion of the total number of people who make refugee claims in Canada. Everyone else is still left out in the cold in various forms.”
In June, the federal government announced changes to the program, which provides temporary coverage of health-care costs to refugees and refugee claimants who are not eligible for provincial health plans.
Describing the reform as a measure intended to discourage unfounded refugee claims, the federal government made cuts to supplemental health benefits that initially appeared to affect all categories of refugees. They later stated that government-assisted refugees will continue to receive expanded health-care coverage.
Other groups, such as most privately sponsored refugees and refugee claimants who are waiting for their claim to be processed, will receive coverage for services of an urgent or essential nature, and will have prescriptions covered only if they are being treated for a condition posing a risk to public safety.
According to members of Sanctuary Health, the cuts mean many refugees are still unable to access medications, as well as services such as prenatal care and lab testing.
“In a lot of cases, for illnesses such as HIV for example, we have to go to the clinic and get diagnostic exams and lab results,” registered nurse Natalie Blair said in an interview. “People aren’t being able to access that, and so they don’t know what care they need.”
She added that some people affected by the cuts have been too afraid to go to a clinic to access services.
“People are in the community suffering and are not even seeking assistance to know what they are able to get help for,” she said. “I think that’s one of the biggest issues here is misinformation to health-care workers, as well as to the people that are being affected by the health-care cuts.”
Organizers with the group said they plan to hold further vigils to draw attention to the changes to the federal health program.