UPDATE: Apparently I am not the only one who feels this way.
A second potential op-ed piece for your consideration:
It was with some surprise that I read about the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ report concerning the effect of the Department of Community Services’ tightened rules for “special need” allowances (“Minister Defends Welfare Rules”, Thursday, July 18). But my surprise stemmed, not from the fact that the cuts were detrimental, but that it took this long for anyone to start talking about it.
I have a good memory; sometimes even a long one. And I clearly remember, shortly after the Canada Day weekend in 2011, hearing how DCS had backed off a “clandestine plan” to cut coverage for a wide range of medical benefits (including dental care, drugs, and medical supplies) for disabled Nova Scotians living in special care homes, hours before it was to take effect and shortly after the press had sought comment from the Minister on the issue. I tried to take the news with a grain of salt, as politics being what it is, I tend to be a mite bit cynical, not just of the party in power, but equally of those associated with the opposition.
And yet I wasn’t entirely surprised a mere two months later to learn that the government had, indeed, changed the regulations with respect to what was covered under “special needs” allowances. Couched as making it easier for “clients” to understand what special needs funding they could receive and to ensure funding decisions were consistent and fair province-wide, the Minister insisted that the Department was committed to meeting the needs of those with special needs. Still many were very unhappy.
I remember thinking that although the changes might have made some financial and common sense, the bottom line was that the Department would no longer cover any medically-related items or services that weren't covered by MSI or listed on the Pharmacare Formulary, whether or not an individual lived in residential care. What might happen to a person who required, for example, a medically-prescribed seizure medication or special type of insulin that was not in the Formulary? Would accommodations be made?
Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that substantial changes had been made without advance notice or public consultation, changes that eliminated assistance for certain items and services that were often "essential" to the health of people with disabilities living in poverty. The new regulations also prohibited special needs assistance for shelter-related costs, personal allowances and medical treatments not covered by MSI, such as psychological counseling. Many felt that the effect was to target people with disabilities and the changes were seen as undermining human rights in that they took away a provision that allowed for accommodation of differences, in favour of a cookie cutter approach. It was hard to disagree.
Fast forward to 2013. With the benefit of a two-year lens, the Centre was able to see, not just the actual effect of those changes and the fact that individuals are now having trouble getting allowances for items that are still covered (such as bus passes, special diet needs, dental care and a telephone), but also the fact that the government is continuing to try to tighten those same rules, even going to court recently to fight a $50 per month request to assist with the cost of the veterinary bills for a therapeutic dog.
But wait, you say, but isn’t having a pet a lifestyle choice? And shouldn’t the person making that choice be responsible for the associated costs? Fair enough for you and me. But is that approach really fair for an individual with a disability subsisting on social assistance benefits who requires their pet because of their disability (be it a service animal for the blind, deaf or those with autism or seizures or even an animal that assists its owner with his or her mood disorder)?
And yet the Minister responded that if the changes actually had made things more difficult for people in already dire circumstances, there would have been some publicity around it. Surely there would have been an outcry.
Seriouisly? Does the Minister seriously believe this, given that such individuals often struggle to get through the month and pay the bills; are often (rightly or wrongly) afraid to speak up for fear that they might lose the benefits they do have (and it’s not like that has ever happened in under previous governments in this Province, right?); or whose disability prevents them from even formulating a plan as to how and who to speak to?
A few days before this article appeared in the Herald, I watched a segment on the CTV News where the mother of a child with severe verbal apraxia (and perhaps other disabilities?) expressed her concern over the fact that her son was not receiving speech therapy over the summer and, hence, his speech was regressing. I had quite a chuckle at the government’s response – first, that this issue had nothing to do with Community Services, as speech therapy falls under the mandate of the Department of Education (fair enough) and that, during the school year, the Education Department supports ALL children who need therapy. It was this latter comment that nearly had me rolling me on the floor.
That’s a great plan in theory – too bad it doesn’t actually work in the real world. School board budgets are stretched so thin that there is a severe lack of speech language pathologists in the system, meaning that they are forced to prioritize their case loads. That would seem reasonable enough until you consider the end result – exactly how many needy children don’t get any speech therapy, period; neither during the school year nor during the summer. You see, once a child is “school age” (meaning between the ages of 6 -21), they are not ALLOWED to access the Nova Scotia Hearing and Speech Clinics, leaving their ONLY access to service these outnumbered and overstretched school SLPs. Unless, of course, the parents have money to pay a private therapist, which means shelling out at least $100 per hour (or perhaps more, depending on where you live in the Province) on a regular basis.
I have a great deal of personal respect for both the Ministers of Education and Community Services. I sincerely believe they are “good” people, honestly intent on “doing the right thing”. But good intentions can only get us so far and we all know that actions speak far louder than words.
Has the Department of Community Services increased its budget and services for persons with disabilities since they have been in power? Yes, they have. Has it been sufficient to meet the need? Far from it. Have some of their actions, like cutting the special needs allowance, been harmful? Yes, I believe they have. Will anything change in the near future? Hell if I know. But I do know that not only can we not afford to wait forever; we simply have neither the ability nor the option to wait much longer.