Officials sound alarm as Ontario plans to cut 'crucial' medical interpreter program in Waterloo, Wellington

·4 min read
Dr. Neil Arya, director of the Centre for Family Medicine Refugee Health Clinic, says he's concerned about the Ontario-funded medical interpreter program being cut, adding, 'It's been a game-changer for us and probably reduced a lot of emergency room visits.'  (Hala Ghonaim/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Neil Arya, director of the Centre for Family Medicine Refugee Health Clinic, says he's concerned about the Ontario-funded medical interpreter program being cut, adding, 'It's been a game-changer for us and probably reduced a lot of emergency room visits.' (Hala Ghonaim/CBC - image credit)

An Ontario-government funded interpreter program in Waterloo and Wellington regions that's considered critical for those seeking medical support is at risk of getting cut by the end of this month, amid a time of need for an influx of Afghan refugees entering Canada.

The former Waterloo Wellington LHIN launched the pilot program three years ago through the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre and other partners, including Immigrant Services Guelph-Wellington and Remote Interpretation Ontario Network.

It offered in-person, virtual and telephone interpretation services to the clients of about 119 health-care providers in the region.

There were hopes the pilot would be expanded beyond its end date of Oct. 31, 2021, but the province said it won't be.

Decision to cut unclear

Lucia Harrison, CEO of the KW Multicultural Centre, said the organization wasn't given a clear explanation as to why there will be no expansion to the program.

Submitted by Lucia Harrison
Submitted by Lucia Harrison

Harrison believes it may be because their contract "fell through the cracks" as a result of organizational restructuring.

She said the agreement was with the Waterloo Wellington LHIN, which technically no longer exists.

The Ontario government dissolved 14 local health integration networks and merged them to create six provincial agencies under a central agency called Ontario Health. Waterloo and Wellington regions are considered western divisions and are now under Ontario Health West.

Harrison said the previous contract was "one of the most progressive in the province." She said she's been told by provincial officials that it's not equitable to other parts of the province that don't have a similar program.

"My message is consistently like, we've proved this works, we proved this has better health outcomes, that it makes more sense to roll it out across the province rather than taking it away from this region because other regions don't have it."

Severe impacts

Harrison said the program offers interpreters for up to 10,000 appointments per year. There was access to dozens of languages including Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, Dari and Pashto.

"It's incredibly crucial," said Harrison.

She said clients — including refugees, newcomers, immigrants and seniors — would be severely impacted without it.

"It impacts the [health] outcome. If you don't have good communication, wrong tests can be given. Often what we see is tests are given that aren't necessary," she said, noting that children often end up interpreting for their families.

"I don't even have to begin to talk about how inappropriate that is," she said.

Hala Ghonaim/CBC
Hala Ghonaim/CBC

The Centre for Family Medicine Refugee Health Clinic in Kitchener is among the health-care providers that relied on this service.

"It's been a game-changer for us and probably reduced a lot of emergency room visits, reduced ... people getting sick and then ending up in ICU. So, for us, it's indispensable," said Dr. Neil Arya, family doctor and director of the clinic.

Arya said the clinic has had to expand to meet the demand of Afghan refugees coming to Canada since U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan, which is now run by the Taliban.

He said it was already difficult to find available Pashto or Dari interpreters, even through the program.

Arya said the clinic may have to resort to relying on settlement workers, client family members of even phone apps to communicate with clients.

"My fear is that just as the pandemic has delayed treatment for ordinary people, for our refugees, now we're going to be getting no care or less care, or faulty care by not having that interpretation," he said.

Moving forward

Harrison said the organization was ready to cancel 800 pending appointments in November, but Ontario Health West stepped in and said it would cover those appointments while it worked toward a possible solution.

"It committed to try and figure this out," she said.

Meanwhile, in an emailed statement to CBC K-W, the Ontario Health Media Team said this "historic agreement has a natural end date of October 31, 2021."

"Ontario Health continues to work with our partners to find innovative solutions for the continuation of translation/interpreter services in the region," the statement reads, confirming it has approved covering costs in November.

Local politicians are also speaking out about the looming end date.

Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre, took to social media to call out a decision by Doug Ford's government to cancel the program.

"I think that there is an ongoing pattern that we're seeing with the Ford government of making some of these decisions behind closed doors without talking to people, without consulting with folks who know the value and the cost analysis, the business case and the benefits of having programs like this available," Lindo told CBC K-W.

"There was an opportunity for the government to invest in this program because of how powerful and helpful it was ... But rather than do that, the first move was to send a letter and say, we're going to cut it, with all of these organizations scrambling, especially at a time where locally we're still anticipating more Afghani refugees to arrive.

"They need the support, care ... and access to quality health care that they deserve."

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