Minister Lisa MacLeod’s announcement today about a new direction for social assistance in Ontario shows promising directions for Ontario Works, but leaves many unanswered questions and creates serious risks for people with disabilities. There is also no mention of addressing the most critical problem, which is improving the inadequate benefit rates for people on OW and the Ontario Disability Support Program.
“We are very concerned about the plan to change the definition of disability in ODSP and the impact this will have on people with disabilities in Ontario,” said Mary Marrone, Director of Advocacy & Legal Services at ISAC. “But the government’s new vision of providing wrap-around services to better support people in their efforts to find employment would be a move in the right direction if done well. Recipients and advocates have called for such changes for many years.”
Other aspects of the announcement, including the new Health Spending Account and changes to amounts of money that people can keep when they work, leave more questions than answers.
The announcement indicates that changes will take place over the coming 18 months.
The announcement indicates that government will change the definition of disability for ODSP to align with federal guidelines. This change would exclude a large number of people who are currently eligible for the program.
ODSP currently uses an inclusive definition of disability that recognizes that people whose disabilities might not be “severe” may still face serious obstacles to employment and participation in the community and in daily life.
“Moving to a federal definition of disability – whether the CPP-D or the Disability Tax Credit definition – would make it much harder for many people with disabilities to access ODSP,” said Marrone. “Many people with disabilities would be excluded, like those with episodic disabilities or some mental health disabilities, forcing them to rely on the much lower benefit amounts that Ontario Works provides.”
Grand-parenting current recipients of ODSP is essential to ensure the lives of current recipients will not be disrupted. But Ontario cannot condemn people with disabilities who will require support in the future to the much lower benefit rates available from Ontario Works. Reform of the system should not start with what is effectively a rate reduction for new entrants. We urge the government to reconsider the move to a more restrictive definition of disability.
Health Spending Account
The Minister noted the creation of a new Health Spending Account for people with disabilities that would give them the ability to select and pay for whichever health-related services they require. It is not clear whether this new amount will replace current mandatory and discretionary health-related benefits that help people access items like diabetes supplies, incontinence supplies, medical travel, and other necessities. No information is available for how much this benefit will provide, how people will qualify for it, and how they will access it.
“The test of the Health Spending Account will be whether everyone who needs it will have easy access to it, and whether it will provide enough money for people to pay for the health-related supplies and services they need,” said Marrone.
The announcement includes changes to the amounts of money that people on OW and ODSP can keep when they work. However, these changes benefit people who work less rather than more. No timeline was given for when these changes will start.
Monthly amounts that people on Ontario Works will be able to keep will increase from $200 to $300. However, clawback rates on earnings above that amount will increase from 50% to 75%. This will mean that the more people on OW earn from work, the less they will benefit. For example, a single person on OW who makes $300 is able to keep $250 currently, but will keep $300 under the new system. But a single person on OW who makes $1,000 is able to keep $600 currently, but under the new system will only keep $475.
For people on ODSP, the earnings exemption amount will increase from $200 / month to $6,000 / year. Moving to an annual amount will provide much more flexibility for people with disabilities, whose earnings can fluctuate from month to month. However, in combination with the higher clawback rate of 75% on additional earnings, people with disabilities will also be negatively impacted the more they are able to earn, although at higher earnings.
“These changes seem counterproductive to the Minister’s stated goal of providing more incentives for people to seek paid work,” said Marrone. “And people who work will actually become financially ineligible sooner, losing critical supports like drug coverage.”
Wrap-Around Supports to Employment
Minister MacLeod announced a number of changes to the way in which services will be provided to move people into employment, including commitments to improve access to critically important help like mental health and addictions supports, childcare, housing, and life skills. These changes recognize that people on social assistance are not necessarily ‘job ready’ and may need a range of services to stabilize their lives before contemplating employment.
“We are encouraged by this focus, including the commitment to undertake pilot projects and proceed carefully,” said Marrone. “The Minister’s statement that changes to programs that support vulnerable people can have serious negative impacts demonstrates that she understands the need for carefully managed change.”
– ISAC will provide more analysis as information becomes available