Fraser Valley hospitals revise policies to stop patient referrals to immigration police

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      One of the region’s largest health-care providers wants undocumented immigrants to know they can visit its hospitals and clinics without fear of deportation.

      The issue became a concern for some people living in the Fraser Valley over the course of 2015. An increasing number of anecdotal reports suggested staff at Fraser Health Authority’s 12 hospitals, which include facilities in Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster, Coquitlam, and Langley, were referring patients to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

      Then, as the Straight reported last December, information obtained via a freedom-of-information request confirmed that over roughly the preceding two years, Fraser Health had referred approximately 500 patients to CBSA, resulting in an unknown number of immigration investigations and deportations.

      Interviewed for that article, Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma acknowledged patients' concerns but maintained Fraser Health sometimes has to contact CBSA for billing purposes. She explained that nonresidents of Canada are charged different rates from residents, and sometimes a call to CBSA is required to confirm a patient’s status.

      Now, Fraser Health has said it has revised its policies on CBSA referrals and has instructed staff to stop contacting immigration police unless they have a patient’s explicit consent.

      The news came somewhat quietly, via a March 15 comment posted by the health authority’s official Facebook account.

      “Since mid-January 2016, our staff have not contacted CBSA without the consent of the patients involved,” it reads. “Patient care is our first priority. The ability for a patient to pay does not delay care when they arrive at our Emergency departments.”

      The comment goes on to give credit to the Georgia Straight for prompting reforms.

      “Following the article in the Georgia Straight, we have reviewed and changed our processes,” it reads.

      A subsequent comment attributed to Fraser Health CEO Michael Marchbank (confirmed by the Straight as authentic) provides further details.

      “Since mid-January, we have instituted a process whereby our staff will not contact CBSA without the consent of the patient involved,” it reads. “We have informed all relevant staff to follow this process, and we are further communicating this to all of our acute care facilities.

      “We understand how difficult it can be for individuals without health insurance to pay for the care they receive at our hospitals,” Marchbank’s comment continues. “Patient care is always of paramount importance to us. The ability for a patient to pay does not delay care when they present at our Emergency departments.”

      The messages from Fraser Health officials were posted on Facebook in response to the announcement of a protest against Fraser Health’s old policies that was planned for March 21.

      Byron Cruz is an immigration activist with Sanctuary Health, the group that organized that event (which is still on and scheduled to discuss a number of related issues such as police and RCMP relations with CBSA). In a telephone interview, Cruz called the Fraser Health announcement “great news”, but also noted it appears to pertain to process, as opposed to policies.

      “We really appreciate that they are doing this,” he continued. “We still need to sit and discuss changes in policy….But it’s great news.”

      Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates Vancouver General Hospital and many facilities outside the Fraser Valley, implemented similar reforms in August 2015. Since then, its staff also require a patient’s permission before placing a call to CBSA.

      If a patient refuses to give permission, and residency status cannot be confirmed for billing purposes, the patient will be charged the higher rates of a non-Canadian resident.

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