Money for medical interpretation for immigrants, refugees has run out, local groups say

Funding has run out for a service used by family doctors and their patients in Waterloo region. Organizations that support new immigrants and refugees with interpreter services for medical care says their work has to stop for now until they get new funding from the province in April.

Centre for Family Medicine says they only have enough funds to provide service for next 2 weeks

A photo of a woman sitting on an office chair with a laptop in front of her.
Lucia Harrison is the CEO of the K-W Multicultural Centre, which helps supports immigrants and newcomers in Waterloo region. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Several organizations that support new immigrants and refugees coming to the region by providing interpreter services for health care say they don't have enough money to continue the service until they get new funding from the province in the spring.

The K-W Multicultural Centre says it was forced to cancel the service on Monday because demand for the program has been so high, the money ran out with three months left in the fiscal year. 

"This impacts some of our most vulnerable clients like government-assisted refugees particularly that might be coming in from refugee camps with serious medical issues," CEO Lucia Harrison told CBC News.

"It is a critical issue for anyone who does not speak English to access medical services without having interpretation available."

Harrison said this will impact roughly 2,000 appointments and she said she is devastated the service won't be available for people over the next three months.

The program provides medical interpretation over the phone, in-person or through video. The service not only supports the individuals using it, but the doctors and health-care system also benefit, Harrison said.

"By using interpretation, we reduce readmission at the hospital, we reduce costs for unnecessary testing and we get in front of health issues rather than them becoming more serious," she said. 

Harrison said they will get new funding on April 1, but the $150,000 they receive from Ontario Health has not been enough to keep up with the demand.

Two years ago, the centre received $300,000 in funding for the service, but that budget was cut. Now, Harrison said, they have to find other ways to make up for the shortfall.

"There still has been fundraising. We've already raised $30,000 or $40,000, but it's not enough because the number of refugees coming have been increasing and the number of people accessing it are increasing," Harrison said.

A green sign.
Centre for Family Medicine on Joseph Street in Kitchener. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

'I really don't know what we're going to do'

The Centre for Family Medicine in Kitchener says they, too, are facing a very similar situation. Wajma Attayi, director of strategy and community initiatives at the centre, said they only have enough funding for medical interpretation for the next two or three weeks.

"But after that, I really don't know what we're going to do," Attayi told CBC News.

"I can see the wait room from my office here and I just think to myself, 'What are we going to do?'"

Attayi said the centre receives $100,000 from Ontario Health for medical interpretation, but they need closer to $450,000 to run the service fully.

Of the 850 government-assisted refugees coming to the region every year, they are only able to service a third of those people with the money they can raise yearly and have seen the number of clients increase significantly in recent years, she said.

"We have to make the hardest decision," she said.

"The challenge is that we've been seeing, over the years, the complexities of the government-assisted refugees coming through is greater and greater," she said.

Attayi adds staff at the centre have stepped in to help provide interpretation services to offset the load, but without money for the service over the next three months, she says the centre will need to reach out to the community for support.

LISTEN | Hear the full interview with KW Multicultural Centre CEO Lucia Harrison: 
The KW Multicultural Centre offers interpreters to help newcomers access healthcare. But now they say they're running out of money to pay for this service. They won't receive a new batch of funding until April, which means people who have medical appointments now, won't have access to this vital service. Hear more from CEO Lucia Harrison.