WINNIPEG. Man. –  Refugee coordinators with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) say churches and other groups should prepare to pay more to sponsor refugees.

The federal government is drastically reducing the Interim Federal Health (IHF) program. The changes go into effect on June 30, 2012.

Brian Dyck, MCC’s refugee assistance coordinator in Manitoba, says he heard about the change in late April. “This came out of the blue. There was no warning. It was a big surprise,” he said.

In the past, IHF has provided refugees with prescription medication and basic dental care and vision care during their first year in Canada. While most refugees are able to access some public health services within a few months of arrival, Dyck says the IHF program assisted them with valuable care not covered by provincial plans.

Ed Wiebe, MCC’s National Refugee Program Coordinator, says the new IHF will cover only emergency care for communicable diseases that pose a risk to public health, such as tuberculosis.

He says over the past five years 120 people have come to Canada annually under MCC’s refugee program. On average, each sponsored refugee used $500 in IHF services. Now Wiebe says sponsors will have to make up the shortfall.  “We think sponsors will kick in for that. They have always topped up as needed. It’s the government-sponsored refugees that will feel the impact. With the IHF gone, they will have nothing to fall back on. They don’t have the community to help them,” he said.

Wiebe says the biggest loss will be dental benefits, because some refugees come to Canada without ever having seen a dentist.  “If you’re a Somali kid coming from the big refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, and you’re less than 17 years old, you’ve never lived outside that camp. At best, you’ve had spotty dental care. If you have a bad tooth, what do you do?”

Dyck agrees that refugees who arrive without private sponsorship will likely bear the burden of the reduced program. “People coming with health problems are already scrambling to find services. This will only make it worse.”

In a letter to the Toronto Star newspaper, the Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney, explained the IHF reductions this way: “What is changing is that bogus refugees, including those whose claims have been rejected, will no longer receive, at taxpayer expense, enhanced services such as eye and dental coverage that are unavailable to many Canadians.”

But Dyck says under social assistance programs, Canadians do receive prescription, vision and dental care, and refugees should be eligible for those same services.

Wiebe says “Access to health care is also a right under the Charter, and all in Canada have these rights. No one is ‘bogus’.”

Julie Bell is a writer for MCC Canada