Low-income seniors complain about poor communication and hidden delays in rolling out GIS refund

Lawyers and legal clinics say they are hearing from ‘panicked’ seniors who have spent hours on the phone with Service Canada trying to register for early access to the government’s one-time payment to offset the clawback of federal income support, only only to find out they should have gone to their local MP first, or that they missed a key deadline, advocates say the government failed to communicate properly in the first place.

About 204,000 low-income seniors in Canada became ineligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) or related benefit, or had their monthly payments reduced, because they received emergency pandemic, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or the Recovery Benefit (CRB) in the first wave of the pandemic. Eligibility for the current benefit year, which began in July 2021, was determined based on 2020 calendar year earnings.

The government backtracked in the December 2021 Economic and Fiscal Update and allocated $742.4 million for a one-time lump sum payment to compensate for all the monthly GIS and allowance payments these seniors had lost since July 2021. But lawyers and opposition MPs say the rollout of this one-time payment, scheduled for May or June before being accelerated, has been mismanaged.

Leila Sarangi, national director of the Campaign 2000 advocacy coalition, said hill time that when Seniors Minister Kamal Khera (Brampton West, Ont.) announced on February 14 that seniors “in need” could apply to receive the payments in March, “there was not much public communication on this subject “.

Sarangi said he first heard about the advance payment process from NDP MP Rachel Blaney (North Island-Powell River, B.C.), her party’s seniors critic. “She contacted us to let us know that this announcement had just been made by the Minister, but beyond that we heard nothing else about how to apply for this advance payment in March,” said said Sarangi.

Conservative MP Shelby Kramp-Neuman says the Liberals should have acted much sooner to help low-income seniors. Photo courtesy of Shelby Kramp-Neuman

Conservative MP and Seniors Advocate Shelby Kramp-Neuman (Hastings—Lennox and Addington, Ont.) said hill time that the government sent an email to every MP’s office on February 18, setting February 28 as the deadline for older people to apply for payment in March. Kramp-Neuman said his office helped some voters through the process, but confirmed the optional nature of the arrangement required seniors to come forward to their MP’s office before the Feb. 28 deadline. .

Devorah Kobluk, senior policy analyst at the Income Security Advocacy Center (ISAC), said hill time that the deployment of advance payments has not been transparent. ISAC is a specialty legal clinic in Ontario that focuses on income security.

“Some people went to their MP offices and their MP offices weren’t told what was going on,” Kobluk said. “It’s frustrating for older people who have already been very confused and quite panicked this whole time.”

The lump sum payments were originally due to be rolled out in May or June, but the government hastened that deadline after pressure from opposition parties and seniors’ advocates. Khera told the House on February 15 that the one-time payments would be released on April 19 and that Service Canada would work with MPs to ensure voters “in need” could get the payment sooner than that. She told the Senate Social Affairs Committee on Feb. 25 that her department was working to issue “a smaller number” of advance payments in March, “to seniors who are in serious financial difficulty.”

“To be quite frank,” Kobluk said, “if your RPC [Canada Pension Plan] and AEO [ Old Age Security] and private pension aren’t high enough and you qualify for GIS, and you’ve had 10 months of late payments, you’re in need, period.

Attorney Kathleen Finlay of Zero Harm Advisors said hill time the seniors minister’s public remarks about advance payments were a wake-up call for her because there was no clarity on “who is getting the March payment, when it will be paid and what people had to do to get the payment”.

A lawyer says she learned about the process for applying for GIS prepayments from NDP MP Rachel Blaney and not from the government. Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Service Canada has used MPs’ offices as a mechanism to identify seniors in “extreme need”, but Finlay, Sarangi and Kobluk all said they heard from seniors who, not knowing they had to first go to their MP’s office, had spent hours on the phone. with Service Canada only to be told that they had missed the February 28 deadline.

Employment and Social Development Canada, the department involved, did not respond to specific questions about whether and how it communicated the process for applying for advance payments. Spokesperson Marie Terrien said hill time in a written statement that all seniors who were eligible for the payment “who contacted Service Canada directly or contacted their Member of Parliament (MP) before February 28 and indicated that they were facing a serious financial situation, received the payment in March.”

Supporters say pandemic aid should never have been clawed back in the first place

The government has designated CERB and related pandemic assistance programs as taxable income, meaning receipt of this emergency assistance has triggered clawbacks for anyone who also received conditional benefits. income. Advocates say many low-income seniors were either unaware of this or could not afford to waive CERB, regardless of the consequences.

“These are low-income seniors,” Finlay said. “The poorest of the poor.”

“They get so little GIS that they have to supplement their income somehow,” Finlay said. hill time, explaining that many part-time jobs disappeared when the pandemic hit. “It was suggested to them by MPs or others that they try to use the CERB payments that others were receiving.”

In cases where CERB payments – set at a flat rate of $2,000 for each four-week period – were greater than the income they replaced, their overall taxable income for 2020 ended up being higher than normal, affecting their eligibility for federal and provincial programs or territorial benefits for the July 2021 benefit year.

Advocates began hearing in the summer of 2021 from seniors who had just realized their GIS and other benefits had been cut. Many have also lost access to provincial and territorial assistance programs whose eligibility is tied to eligibility for federal GIS and allowance programs. Finlay described it as a huge and unexpected reduction in income for many, leaving them “pretty desperate” and “in a terrible situation” that “has gone on for months and months and months”.

Kathleen Finlay says she has heard of two elderly people who have taken their own lives in despair over their financial situation. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Finlay

“It’s been awful,” Finlay said, telling stories of seniors taking out high-interest payday loans, selling wedding rings, being evicted from apartments, losing access to medicine, dental care , etc

“I know at least two people who committed suicide.”

Tory MP Kramp-Neuman said she was grateful to the government for bringing in the one-time lump sum payment. “I commend them for doing this,” she said, but said “it took way too long.”

“It took them eight months to fix a problem they were aware of two years ago,” Kramp-Neuman said. “And it seemed to me that, of my purpose, the government had not acted until it was constantly pressed by all parties in this House.”

Along with the retrograde lump sum payments, the government rushed a forward-looking bill through parliament in February to prevent this cycle from repeating itself for the July 2022 benefit year, for low-income older people who received support. pandemic emergency in 2021.

Bill C-12 amended the Old Age Security Act to exclude pandemic assistance from income used to determine GIS eligibility, which advocates were claiming for the previous benefit year.

Khera introduced the bill to the House on Feb. 8 and it passed unanimous second and third readings on Feb. 16, skipping the usual committee process. She then appeared before the Senate Social Affairs Committee on February 25 and the bill was passed by the Senate and received Royal Assent, without amendment, on March 3.

Conservative Senator Rose-May Poirier (Saint-Louis-de-Kent, N.B.) pointed out in committee in Khera that her predecessor, then Minister of Seniors Deb Schulte, had recognized as early as May 12 2020 that any income received through CERB would begin to affect benefit amounts for low-income seniors in July 2021.

“The government was aware of this issue since May 2020,” Poirier said in a written statement to hill time. “I find it terribly unfortunate that vulnerable seniors are placed in such a precarious position due to the government’s lack of due diligence. This is unacceptable and frankly heartbreaking – our seniors deserve better.

“The clawback is a significant, pre-existing issue,” Kobluk said, warning that the fact that CERB counts as taxable income also affects eligibility for other income-tested programs, such as the Canada Child Benefit and provincial social assistance. “[The government] knew in May 2020 and they did nothing until there was a ton of advocacy and people had been living for 10 months without it. It could have been avoided. »

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