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Q&A with Dr. Philip Berger

Toronto, October 6, 2014

By Evelyne Jhung

Dr. Philip Berger
Dr. Philip Berger, medical director of the Inner City Health Program. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

The Federal Court of Canada ruled in July against Ottawa’s 2012 cuts to health care coverage for refugee claimants, saying that the "intentional targeting of those seeking protection of Canada — an admittedly poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged group" amounts to "cruel and unusual treatment." Dr. Philip Berger, medical director of the Inner City Health Program, and a founding member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, was a co-litigant in the court case.

1. When did you get involved with health care for refugees?
I’ve been seeing refugees since 1977 when I was a family practice resident here. A refugee lawyer friend asked me to document cases of torture to be used in refugee determination hearings. After 90 physicians occupied (then-Natural Resource Minister) Joe Oliver’s Toronto office in May 2012, we realized we needed to form a group because the protest against the cuts would continue until the next federal election. That’s when Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care was born.

2. How did you find out about the decision and what was your reaction?
We knew on July 3 that the ruling was coming out at 8:30 a.m. the next day. At 8:40 a.m., I received an email from Lorne Waldman, legal counsel for the court challenge, simply stating: “Have not read the decision yet but we won!” The mood was more serious than celebratory, a day of thankfulness that refugees would be receiving care, particularly pregnant women and children. We felt vindicated because the judge agreed with what we had been saying for the past two years. Most importantly, it was a day of victory for patients more so than for doctors.

3. What was your strategy?
We took a multi-pronged approach: we did media; wrote op-eds and peer-reviewed journal articles analyzing the effects of the cuts; and mobilized about 50 prominent Canadian artists, like Vincent Lam and Margaret Atwood. We continued protests in the streets against the cuts and joined in the federal court challenge.

We are fiercely non-partisan. Political parties and unions are not allowed to be part of CDRC activities because alignment with any group would undermine our credibility. We received support from more than 20 national health associations and editorial support from the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

4. What does the ruling mean for everyone?
In January, the provincial government introduced the Ontario Temporary Health Program to fill in gaps in health care coverage for refugee claimants and rejected refugee claimants created by the federal cuts. Even though the federal government is still making the coverage process highly bureaucratic, with this ruling, St. Michael’s Hospital and Ontario will no longer be responsible for absorbing those costs.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.