Liberals unveil $1B home care plan

TheStar.com – News/Canada
Published On Tue Oct 05 2010.   Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA—Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has rolled out a big-ticket item for his next election campaign — a $1 billion plan to give more time and money to people caring for the sick and elderly at home.

It’s the first major policy proposal from the Liberals that comes with a price tag — a reply to the question of what Liberals would do with approximately $6 billion they said can be saved by freezing the Conservatives’ planned cuts to corporate taxes in the next few years.

Conservatives immediately leaped on the proposal, calling it “reckless,” while the New Democrats and Conservatives also argued that Liberals have promised — and failed to deliver — home care plans while they were in government.

Ignatieff’s “Family Care” policy plan has two parts: one would give six months of employment insurance benefits to caregivers, while the other would provide up to $1,350 a year to people who are providing home care to the elderly or ill.

At present, home-care providers in Canada can only obtain six weeks of EI benefits — and only then if they can prove that the person in their care is expected to die within 26 weeks.

Liberals say that if they’re elected, those benefits will be expanded to six months and the terminally ill condition will be removed.

On Tuesday morning, at the Gatineau, Que. home of Mike Lemieux and Helene Hardy, Ignatieff’s promise was greeted with tearful approval by a married couple in their 50s who have been struggling for five years to manage Lemieux’s cancer treatment while Hardy takes repeated time off from her job.

The current compassionate care system didn’t work for them, because they haven’t given up hope on Lemieux’s recovery from an aggressive, recurring series of tumours throughout his body.

“It’s hard for a physician to put an expiry date on someone to start with,” Lemieux said.

Hardy says she’s exhausted; she’s used all her vacation to take care of her husband, while little costs, such as buying pesticide-free groceries and gas for trips to the hospital, have added up. The Liberals’ proposal would make a huge difference, she said.

Liberals estimate that about 30,000 people in Canada will take advantage of their proposed improvements to EI benefits, compared to approximately 5,000 who are now using the six-week provision to stay at home with ailing relatives. The cost of expanding these EI benefits would be about $250 million a year, Liberals say.

The more expensive item in the Liberals’ family-care platform is a new, refundable tax benefit, which would be similar in scope and size to the Conservatives’ child care program that puts roughly $100 a month directly in parents’ pockets.

At a cost to the federal treasury of about $750 million a year, Liberals are proposing to send monthly cheques, up to a maximum of $1,350 a year, for people who are caring for sick or elderly relatives at home. As many as 600,000 people could be eligible for these cheques, Liberals estimate.

In political terms, this home care plan has the potential to boost the Liberals’ fortunes, aimed at an aging demographic — one that tends to turn out at the polls on election day, unlike younger voters. According to statistics frequently cited by the Liberals in their arguments for home care, nearly 3 million people currently provide care to a relative at home and that number is expected to increase by a third over the next seven years.

In the driveway of the Hardy-Lemieux home in Gatineau on Tuesday morning, Ignatieff said this is all about spending choices. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been spending $1 billion on the G8/G20 summits and millions more on fighter jets and government advertising, Liberals would spend it on “hard-pressed” Canadian families, Ignatieff said.

“Look, what Canadians want from responsible political leaders is clear choices. They want to know where we stand. This is a statement of very important principle of where this party stands,” Ignatieff said.

Soon after the Liberals unveiled their announcement, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley was out before reporters, slamming the idea.

“Either they’re making a promise they don’t intend to keep to Canadians or they’re going to inflict massive tax increases at a time when Canadians and Canadian businesses can least afford it,” Finley said.

Asked whether the Conservatives might consider expanding their own compassionate care program, Finley said the government was “always reviewing” its plans, but then said, “Most employees do have vacation leave they can use.”

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