Don’t cut costs on backs of sick

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Tue Mar 16 2010

There is never a good time to be unemployed, poor, sick – and dependent on government assistance. But with the province facing a massive deficit and searching for savings, this is a particularly bad time.

On the eve of its spring budget, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government seems to be paying close heed to the provincial auditor’s warning about “possible abuse” of a supplementary diet program that provides extra funds to welfare recipients with special medical needs.

And there are growing concerns about how Queen’s Park will respond to a human rights tribunal decision ordering it to expand the program and raise some rates in order to address discriminatory practices.

Ontario’s Special Diet Allowance currently provides $10 to $250 a month to 162,000 people on welfare and disability support, enabling them to buy specialized, healthy foods to better manage medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

Program costs, though, have jumped from $6 million in 2003 to $200 million today; last month’s tribunal decision could add tens of millions more. This, along with Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur’s statement that “we’ll have to wait and see what will be in the budget or not,” has fuelled speculation that the province plans to radically alter or eliminate the program in the upcoming budget.

Rising costs are no reason to kill a program that allows sick Ontarians to buy healthy food they could not otherwise afford.

If the government is simply looking to cut spending in a $6.5 billion social assistance budget, slashing this program would be counterproductive. The end result would be to shift costs to our health-care budget, by depriving people of the food they need to avoid getting sicker.

If the government’s goal is to ensure the program reaches only those it was intended for – people with illnesses that can be helped by specialized, but more costly, diets – it should solicit advice from the panel it has already appointed to recommend reforms to the overall welfare system.

It’s only fair that in a time of scarce resources, funding for specialized diets reaches those who need it most.

But the government must also recognize that the rapid growth in this program cannot be explained away solely by abuse or lax enforcement. The reality is that monthly welfare cheques – $585 for a single person – are utterly inadequate for buying nutritious food while paying for decent shelter.

The government has targeted a program whose costs seem to be increasing out of control. But the McGuinty government cannot close its eyes to the fact that people living in deep poverty tend to fall ill more than other Ontarians.

Eliminating a program that helps them buy healthy food won’t change that. It will only make matters worse.

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