COVID-19 disability benefit, even if approved, would ‘miss all kinds of people’

On June 5, the federal government promised a one-time payment of up to $600 for Canadians living with disabilities to help lessen the financial strain tied to the novel coronavirus pandemic. That financial aid is now in limbo, as the measure was part of a bill that failed to receive bipartisan support on Wednesday.

But even if Ottawa finds a way to deliver the income support, as government officials have vowed to do, the funds will remain out of reach for a significant share of Canadians with disabilities.

The money “misses all kinds of people,” said Ottawa resident Robert Morely, speaking before Parliament’s vote on Wednesday.

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Morely, who was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, is one of those people. While his disability is a lifelong condition, he lost his eligibility for the federal disability tax credit (DTC) and with it the ability to receive the $600 payment.

Only those with a valid certificate for the DTC, a non-refundable credit for people with disabilities and their families, would be eligible to receive Ottawa’s COVID-19 aid. And while that would ensure the income support would reach some 1.2 million people, it also means it wouldn’t reach hundreds of thousands more Canadians with disabilities, many of them in low-income households, who don’t have the DTC, according to experts.

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That Canadians with the DTC would receive some help is “a good thing,” said Krista Carr, executive vice president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, who spoke to Global News before the vote.

CACL told Global News in a statement it is “extremely disappointed” with the delay the disability benefit now faces, adding that “persons with a disability shouldn’t have to wait any longer for financial relief.”

The pandemic is causing “hardship and crisis,” not to mention increased expenses, in the disability community, Carr said.

However, she added, the DTC is “a very imperfect mechanism” to distribute the income support.

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Why many struggle to access the disability tax credit

The 1.2 million DTC-eligible Canadians are a small part of the six million people in the country who self-identify as having a disability that impacts their everyday living, said Michael Prince, professor of social policy at the University of Victoria.

One 2018 study estimated that only 40 per cent of Canadians with severe disabilities have access to the DTC, a figure the New Democratic Party has cited when asking for changes to the current disability benefit proposal.

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Critics say the rules used by Canada Revenue Agency to assess eligibility for the disability tax credit are one of the main barriers to access to the DTC, which is linked to benefits worth up to $12,000 a year for a median-income family, according to a 2018 study.

“It’s a very onerous process,” Carr said, one that requires Canadians to pay a physician or other qualified health professional to certify that they qualify for the credit.

Cost alone keeps many from applying from the credit, Carr said. And often, medical practitioners themselves struggle to understand government eligibility guidelines on the DTC and fill the forms correctly, she added.

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There is also a question of whether CRA staff are best qualified to assess eligibility for the credit, Carr said.

And even when Canadians manage to qualify for the DTC, they may lose it after a few years.

That’s what happened to Morely, who was turned down for the DTC in 2019, even if his doctor said his condition hasn’t changed. He appealed to the Tax Court of Canada, but his hearing has been delayed amid the health crisis, he said.

Morley said even small, routine tasks of everyday living leave him exhausted and needing prolonged rest. The illness also made him unable to work, he said.

Without the DTC, however, he won’t be getting Ottawa’s emergency disability benefit.

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Recognizing the unique challenges COVID-19 presents to people with disabilities

Few options to distribute a one-time disability benefit

Many policymakers are well aware of the shortcomings of the DTC, which has been critiqued for years and is currently under review, Prince said. But Ottawa has few other alternatives for distributing the aid, he added.

Some disability advocates have been asking the government to administer the funds through provincial and territorial income assistance programs, both Prince and Carr said.

That, however, would have missed a number of families with children with disabilities, Carr notes. While only adults are eligible for social assistance, families can claim the DTC for minor dependents.

Another, major issue with the provincial approach is that, so far, most jurisdictions have been clawing back assistance payments for those who also receive federal emergency benefits, Carr and Prince said.

Only B.C., Yukon and the Northwest Territories, for example, have refrained from scaling back income assistance for recipients of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

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Both Prince and Carr believe the decision to opt for tying the new federal disability aid to the DTC was, at least in part, an attempt by Ottawa to avoid the clawback issue.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has urged administrators not to reduce social assistance payments for those who receive federal emergency money.

However, it remains unclear whether tying the COVID-19 disability aid to the DTC will actually work as intended. While the federal government has said the benefit would be a tax-free amount, that doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of clawbacks, Carr and Prince said.

“Tax credits are generally not considered income for determining access to social assistance, and I suspect that will be the case for this disability-related COVID-19 support,” said Jason Heath, an independent financial planner.

However, he added, “there are different federal and provincial social assistance programs, so to be sure, a recipient should double-check with the agency administering the support.”

And linking the disability benefits to the DTC means the money wouldn’t reach a number of low-income Canadians with disabilities who are on social assistance but don’t have a DTC certificate, Carr notes.

In its current form, the aid would also miss many Canadians who receive the Canada Pension Plan Disability benefit and veterans with disabilities, Prince said.

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Added expenses for Canadians with disabilities during the pandemic

For all its shortcomings, the advantage of using a program like the DTC lies in the ability to “get the cheques out quickly,” Prince said.

Many Canadians with disabilities and their families have been facing significant cost increases because of the pandemic, Carr said.

The cost of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for those who are immunocompromised, for example, can easily add $100 to $200 a month, she said. Many are forced to rely on pricey grocery-delivery services or use taxies and ride-sharing companies instead of public transportation, she added. Some families with dependents with disabilities have to increase their reliance respite support, among other expenses, according to Carr.

The restrictions linked to the COVID-19 haven’t brought much change for Morley, who said he hasn’t been able to leave his home for more than a short walk around the block for years.

And Morley, who depends on his partner financially, said he hasn’t had to worry about running out of money for essential expenses.

Still, as pharmacies capped medication refills to avoid shortages amid the health emergency, Morley said his spending on prescriptions has tripled.

On a tight budget, he said, even the modest increased expense tied to his medications is “much more of a burden than it really should be.”


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