Ignatieff offers overstretched families a break

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Wed Oct 13 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The Prime Minister called it “reckless.” Pundits called it ill-timed and frivolous. Health economists were unimpressed.

But to the 2.7 million Canadians who look after aging parents and infirm spouses, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s “family care plan” offered a sliver of hope.

These caregivers save the health-care system $25 billion a year. They sacrifice their savings, job prospects and sometimes their health to keep frail seniors out of hospitals and nursing homes. They get nothing in return — no recognition, no recompense.

Ignatieff’s modest initiative would help only a quarter of them.

But its size is not the real measure of its significance. It is an acknowledgement of the work caregivers do. It is a first step in confronting the issues posed by an aging society. It is a refutation of the notion that Ottawa’s sole responsibility is to maintain a favourable business climate.

Here is what Ignatieff is proposing:

First, he would fix the flawed compassionate care benefit introduced by his party in 1994. It allows workers caring for a gravely ill relative up to six weeks of employment insurance, provided they submit a doctor’s certificate stating that the individual “is at significant risk of death within 26 weeks.”

Most caregivers find this condition repugnant and consider the six-week limit inhumane. Ignatieff would replace both rules. He would allow workers to take six months of paid leave. A doctor need only verify that the person under their care could not handle basic tasks such as cooking and bathing.

Cost: $250 million a year.

Second, he would provide a small monthly payment to caregivers who aren’t eligible for employment insurance (the majority). Using the income tax system, he would offer those in the greatest need a refundable tax credit of $1,350 a year.

The full credit would be available only to caregivers with family incomes of $40,000 or less (primarily older women and low-income parents struggling to support three generations). The Liberals aim to broaden it, as the country’s finances improve.

Cost: $750 million.

Four principal objections have been raised.

It’s unaffordable. This is strange, coming from a Prime Minister who just spent $16 billion on top-of-the-line fighter jets and is pouring up to $10 billion into jail building.

Moreover, the Liberals have explained how they would pay for the program. By cancelling the corporate tax cuts scheduled by the Conservatives for the next three years, they would free up $6 billion annually, allowing Ignatieff to introduce measures that reflect his party’s priorities.

It’s untimely. It’s true the economy is fragile; the federal budget is $100 billion in the red and the global outlook is highly uncertain.

If Ignatieff were launching a sweeping overhaul of Canada’s threadbare elder care system, this charge would be legitimate. But he’s not. His caregiver plan is small, carefully targeted and financially prudent.

It’s unnecessary. In purely political terms, it is probably is. The majority of voters have yet to experience the toll Alzheimer’s, a crippling fall or a degenerative illness can take on a family.

It doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. Fair point; if seniors got the home care they need, their families wouldn’t be so overstretched. But home care is a provincial responsibility. Ignatieff would use the two levers the federal government does have — EI and the tax system — to defray caregivers’ expenses and protect their jobs.

The Liberal plan would not break the bank or jeopardize economic growth. It would give Canadians a choice: A government that spends their money on military hardware and prisons or one that uses their tax dollars to alleviate the strains of an aging society.

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