Pensioner’s Christmas windfall melts on arrival

Posted on December 1, 2010 in Social Security Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/EditorialOpinion
Published On Wed Dec 01 2010.  By Carol Goar,  Editorial Board

The first letter Barbara Stewart-Fisher received from the Ministry of Community and Social Services brought relief. She no longer owed the government any money.

The second letter, a day later, sent her heart leaping.

The government owed her $272. It had overcharged her. “I could really use that money at Christmas,” she thought.

Every day, for the next two weeks, the disabled senior checked her bank account. Nothing turned up. Fearing she might have misunderstood the letter, she phoned the ministry to see what was going on. But she couldn’t get past the automated switchboard and gave up.

The next day, she went to a legal aid clinic. The lawyer stayed on the line until she was connected to an official in the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). But the news was disheartening. The bureaucrat said Stewart-Fisher still owed more than $1,000.

Now the 66-year-old is confused and fretful. “Do I owe money or don’t I? Will I ever get this sorted out?

“Normally I am strong and capable,” Stewart-Fisher said, her voice faltering. “But sometimes I lose it.”

Overpayments are the bane of disabled Ontarians’ existence. They turn people’s lives inside out, jeopardize their housing arrangements, compromise their health and sometimes drive them into debt.

Any fluctuation in an ODSP recipient’s income — resulting from part-time work, longer hours, a move, a divorce settlement or a relationship with a non-disabled partner — can trigger an overpayment.

The client is required to report any change in circumstances to an ODSP caseworker. But his or her file may not be updated promptly. Or the new information isn’t connected to the client’s account. By the time the ministry gets caught up, a substantial overpayment has been sent. It must be reimbursed.

That’s what happened to Stewart-Fisher. She informed her caseworker well in advance that her 65th birthday was coming and she would soon have pension income. What she didn’t realize was that her old age security would be reduced because of a lump-sum settlement she received for a 1999 workplace injury.

Her ODSP caseworker said she could stay on partial disability support until she got her pension problems straightened out. “I don’t want an overpayment,” Stewart-Fisher said warily.

But she ended up with one. She owed the government $2,000. “I started paying it off right away.”

For two days this month, she thought she was debt-free. Now she doesn’t know where she stands or what she can afford.

“Every person I speak to has an overpayment,” Stewart-Fisher said. “Why do we have to go through this? Doesn’t anybody check for mistakes? Doesn’t anybody care what the stress does to people?

“These things have to get fixed.”

No doubt overpayments will come up in the social assistance review launched by the government this week. But that doesn’t guarantee change; the panel can only make recommendations.

Stewart-Fisher is a survivor. She’ll weather this blow the same way she’s deal with everything else that went wrong in her life: by gritting her teeth and lowering her sights.

She’s had a lot of practice. Her marriage broke down, leaving her with no income and two children to support. So she got a job as a teacher’s aide. But Mike Harris, the premier of the day, eliminated funding for classroom assistants. So she got a factory job. But she hurt herself lifting stock. So she filed a compensation claim to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, but received nothing for 10 years. So she exhausted her savings then reluctantly applied for disability support.

Things will get better eventually. Stewart-Fisher may even get her $272 cheque. But her plaintive question will hang in the air: Why do disabled Ontarians have to go through this?

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