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Health care cost for older immigrants pegged at nearly $3 billion

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BY TOBI COHEN, POSTMEDIA NEWS



OTTAWA — Elderly immigrants cost the government approximately $3 billion annually in health care, while those over 50 who have worked have never reported earning more than $15,000 a year, figures obtained by Postmedia News suggest.
The figures are contained in a memo produced just three months before the government froze the parent and grandparent stream and introduced a 10-year, multiple entry supervisa that requires visiting relatives to show proof of a year's worth of health insurance as a stopgap measure while Ottawa deals with a huge backlog in applications.
It suggests the government — which isn't shy about favouring economic immigrants — wasn't just trying to be fair as it got rid of the backlog, but that it also has grave concerns about the cost of accepting elderly immigrants given their low earning potential.
Released through access to information and prepared for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in "response to a request for information regarding the cost of health care to senior immigrants and the contribution that parents and grandparents make to household income," the memo is also raising questions about whether Canada might be moving toward a two-tier health care system for newcomers.
It suggests some 2,712 refugees over the age of 65 cost the government $7.4 million in 2000-2010.
Meanwhile, in 2010 some 5,655 parents and grandparents over the age of 65 arrived in Canada at a cost of about $10,742 per year each for health care.
Based on data collected between 1980 and 2010, Citizenship and Immigration estimates there were about 275,000 immigrant parents and grandparents over 65 living in Canada in 2010 at a cost of nearly $3 billion a year for health care.
The total cost for a newcomer senior who lives to age 85 years was cited at about $160,000.
According to data collected by Citizenship and Immigration between 1980 and 2000, none of the parents and grandparents who arrived in Canada aged 50 or older have reported annual employment earnings that exceed $15,000.
A Commons committee has called already for the controversial supervisa to be made permanent — and last month, the government announced it also was cutting certain health benefits to refugees, which touched off a wave of protest among physicians.
In an interview Thursday, Kenney rejected the notion that Canada was moving toward a two-tiered health care system for immigrants but indicated a premium aimed at defraying health care costs is something the government is considering as it consults with stakeholders in a bid to reform the parent and grandparent stream, which is on hold for two years.
"One idea has been to require families to put down some kind of a health care bond for sponsoring parents or grandparents. They would pay up front for a portion of the health care costs that their parents would use in Canada," he said.
"Family sponsorship is a privilege, not a right. We are committed to family reunification within our system but it has to be linked to our scarce public resources. It's not fair for us to raise taxes on Canadians to pay for future health care costs for folks who've never lived in the country or paid taxes in it."
Outspoken Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said he thinks $150,000 up front would be reasonable and that many immigrants he's spoken with are more than willing to pay a premium.
He envisions a "hybrid" system that includes a "money" stream for those willing to pay and a "freebie" stream in which provinces — which are responsible for the delivery of health care — tell the federal government how many parents and grandparents they're willing to absorb on the public dime.
Critics, however, see it all as the erosion of family reunification as a key tenet of Canada's immigration system — which they also say is increasingly favouring the rich.
"The level of coverage we are requiring people to buy for their family member who visits and the fact that it all has to be paid for in advance to qualify for the supervisa means effectively there's a huge swath of people in Canada who will no longer be able to even have their parents at their child's bar mitzvah or wedding," Queen's University law professor Sharry Aiken said.
"I'm very concerned about this shift because what it's saying is family reunification is for those who can afford to pay."
NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims added her office gets daily calls from people who have been denied a supervisa, many of them from China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
She said she believes any move toward a two-tiered health care system for immigrants would be "so unCanadian" and that parent and grandparent reunification, in particular, has spinoff benefits the government must not overlook.
Parents and grandparents, she said, often assist with childcare, which allows both parents to work. For newcomers from one-child policy countries like China who come through the economic streams favoured by the Conservatives, she said, the freedom to bring parents and grandparents over is a key reason they chose Canada.
"Granting seniors a supervisa . . . is no replacement for family reunification and what every family desires, which is to have their parents or grandparents close to them," Sims said.
Postmedia News has obtained updated figures on the parent and grandparent supervisa poised for release Friday that show an approval rate of about 83 per cent.
Some 4,425 applications have been processed, on average within eight weeks of receipt, since the visa was introduced. Of them, 3,684 were approved, 20 were withdrawn and 741 were denied, mostly because the applicants did not meet the criteria, which require sponsors to have a minimum income of $22,637 if they're single or nearly $60,000 for a family of seven. They must also complete a medical exam and show proof of insurance.
tcohen@postmedia.com


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