Welfare special diet allowance at risk

TheStar.com – Ontario – Province signaling changes in wake of auditor’s report of abuse in the program
Published On Sat Mar 13 2010.   Laurie Monsebraaten Social Justice Reporter

Ravenous hunger and crushing fatigue have plagued Julie Sauve since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003 and forced to quit her job as a food and beverage manager.

But Ontario’s Special Diet Allowance, which helps people on welfare manage medical conditions, means Sauve can afford to buy the lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables she needs to maintain her weight and fight her illness.

“MS is different for everyone,” says the 38-year-old Bracebridge woman of the disease that attacks the central nervous system. “For me, it has sped up my metabolism meaning I have to eat five or six times a day. So the extra money has made a huge difference to me.”

But the program, which provides up to $250 per month for people managing more than 40 medical conditions, is taking a big bite out of provincial coffers. And a provincial auditor’s report last December said there is evidence of abuse.

All of this making Sauve – and thousands of others whose health is dependent on the extra money – worried the program may be eliminated, or drastically reduced in the provincial budget expected later this month.

Complicating matters, an Ontario Human Rights Commission ruling last month found the program discriminates against people with certain conditions. It ordered Queen’s Park to increase payments for three complainants and boost benefits for everyone under similar circumstances within three months.

That decision could add tens of millions more to a program that has ballooned to $200 million from just $6 million since 2003.

The allowance, which can only be obtained if a doctor or other health professional completes an application form, has been a longstanding – if not well-known – part of Ontario’s social assistance program.

But in the early 2000s, after a 22.6 per cent welfare cut in 1995 and a subsequent eight-year freeze, anti-poverty activists, legal clinics and community health centres began promoting the allowance,

In one highly publicized “hunger clinic” held on the lawn in front of Queen’s Park in 2005, doctors filled out more than 1,000 special diet application forms.

Today, more than 162,000 people on welfare, including 108,000 on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and about 54,000 on Ontario Works receive the allowance, or roughly 1 out of every 5 people on welfare.

As the provincial auditor noted in his 2009 annual report, some doctors are approving a large percentage of applications. A review of case files found instances where eight to 10 family members were all diagnosed with the same medical conditions resulting in extra payments of up to $30,000 annually.

At least one Toronto doctor has acknowledged he routinely signs application forms for people on welfare because he doesn’t believe Ontario’s meager monthly welfare cheques of $585 for an able-bodied recipient or $1,040 for a disabled person, provide enough money to buy healthy food.

The government has since ordered welfare workers to scrutinize special diet allowance applications more closely and has launched an internal review of the program.

The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons is investigating Toronto family doctor Ronald Wong for allegedly filling out hundreds of special diet application forms for people on welfare without confirming whether they suffer from a medical condition that qualifies for the extra cash.

Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur told the legislature last week that the Human Rights Commission ruling could have a “significant fiscal, policy and regulatory impact,” on the program, adding that she has received “good advice from the Auditor General.”

An internal ministry memo to front-line staff acknowledging rumours of the program’s demise is ominous, says Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a clinic that advocates for people on social assistance.

And rumours that the government may axe the allowance in favour of a 3-per-cent or 4-per-cent welfare increase for everyone are particularly alarming.

An extra $18 for a single person on welfare and $31 for someone on disability supports would be welcome, says Laidley. But not at the expense of cuts to those who rely on the special diet allowance.

“You shouldn’t be improving (welfare) rates by taking money away from poor, sick people,” she says. “Someone who gets $240 a month for Ensure to prevent dangerous weight loss will be at serious risk if that’s replaced with $18 or $31 a month.”

It is the wrong message to be sending at a time when the province is committed to poverty reduction and is reviewing social assistance, she adds.

Sauve already knows what it is like to lose the special diet allowance.

In 2005 when Ontario tried to rein in costs by creating a list of more than 40 illnesses that qualify for the allowance, MS was excluded. Sauve lost $177 a month.

In 2008, Sauve and more than 100 others on disability supports took the province to the Human Rights Commission over the policy. In January 2009, MS and lupus were added to the list of qualifying illnesses.

Since then, Sauve has received an extra $240 a month to spend on food and has gained 12 pounds – just 4 pounds short of her ideal weight of 130 lbs for her 5-ft 6-in frame. Her deteriorating eyesight has also stabilized.

Sauve’s health has improved so much that she’s hoping to go back to work part time.

“I feel so much better,” she says. “I account most of this to the fact that I can eat properly again. I’ve been getting better and better and better and it’s because of what I’ve been eating.”

Sauve can’t believe she may lose this key support again.

“It would be devastating,” she says. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

< http://www.thestar.com/news/ontario/article/779481–welfare-special-diet-allowance-at-risk >

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