Ontario relaxes rules on supports for people with disabilities

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Single mom Kathy Katula, 54, from Buckhorn, Ont. fights back tears at her home on Saturday January 14, 2017 near Peterborough, Ont. Katula blasted both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne Friday for driving up the costs of electricity and driving her into poverty at Trudeau's town hall event in Peterborough Friday. 'I feel like you�ve failed me,'Katula, 54, told Trudeau at a town hall question-and-answer meeting that was broadcast live across the country by several news networks. 'I�m asking you here today to fix that.' Katula told the crowd of 350 she�d lived a tough life, had a disability, and yet had scrimped and saved to be able to buy her own home and raise four children. Clifford Skarstedt/Peterborough Examiner/Postmedia Network

TORONTO — Ontario residents with disabilities are seeing major changes to provincial programs offering financial support and medical coverage.

Effective Friday, the government is loosening some of the stringent rules governing the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW). The two are the primary social support systems for disabled residents, although Ontario Works assists non-disabled residents as well.

One of the most notable changes significantly relaxes the rules concerning how much money recipients are allowed to have as assets or savings before having their benefits clawed back.

Singles receiving ODSP will see their asset limits jump from $5,000 to $40,000, while limits for couples will climb from $7,500 to $50,000.

Individuals using Ontario Works will see those limits quadruple from $2,500 to $10,000, while couples’ limits triple from $5,000 to $15,000.

The government is also increasing the limits on how much ODSP or OW recipients can receive in a year as cash gifts.

Among other changes going into effect is a two per cent increase in monthly social assistance benefits for both programs.

Program users and advocates hailed the changes as definite progress for a system they say had long lagged behind the needs of those who relied on it. But they said the changes still fall short of what’s needed.

In particular, they cited the small increase to social assistance benefits.

Individuals on ODSP, for instance, receive just $1,151 per month, including a maximum shelter allowance of $489. The total monthly income for couples on ODSP is currently set at $1,688.

Kyle Vose, chair of the ODSP Action Coalition, said the changes that took effect Friday represent a necessary and welcome first step to overhauling the program.

“We are grateful for what we’re getting and for the changes that are being made,” said Vose, who cited the increase to asset limits and cash gifts as among the most exciting of the changes.

Those were long-standing sore points within the community, he said.

Ron Malis, a financial advisor focusing on people with disabilities, agreed.

With the previous limits, if a social assistance recipient were to receive an inheritance that would put them over those low thresholds, they would have to isolate the money in a registered disability savings plan or other exempt asset in order to keep receiving monthly aid, Malis explained.

Going over the limit, he said, could result in short or long-term suspension of benefits.

If people wanted to access some of those funds for reasons not related to their disability, they would then run afoul of another set of rules — those governing cash gifts and voluntary payments.

Under the old system, both ODSP and OW recipients were barred from receiving any cash gifts greater than $6,000 over a 12-month period. Malis said this would include withdrawals from trusts or other exempted savings vehicles.

The new rules are raising the cash gift limit for both groups to $10,000. But Malis said the change is not in line with the more substantial increases to asset limits.

“You increase the size of the water barrel, but you do not allow people to open the tap much more than is currently possible today,” Malis said. “It makes things so complex for people who are struggling.”

Still, Malis praised the measures as significant progress, though he argued the Ontario government could have followed the lead of provinces such as British Columbia. Asset limits there were recently raised to $100,000 without limits on cash gifts.

Graeme Dempster, a spokesman from the Ministry of Community and Social Services, said Ontario is looking to B.C.’s approach to see if it’s an appropriate blueprint for future changes.

“We do not know yet how that affected clients or if that is the appropriate amount to which the limit should be increased,” he said. “This policy change in British Columbia gives us an opportunity to see how results there can inform future changes to ODSP, which we are always looking for ways to improve.”

Dempster said the ministry recognizes the need to “fundamentally change social assistance.” A reform group is slated to release recommendations on the issue this fall.

At least one group is calling for more drastic improvements than those that went into effect Friday.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty called the two per cent boost to monthly payments “measly” and said it falls well short of what’s needed, particularly when contrasted with the roughly $1,900 people with disabilities could expect to receive under Ontario’s basic income pilot program.

Other changes taking effect are modest increases for ODSP recipients living in remote communities, relaxed ajudication rules for people re-entering either ODSP or OW, and the addition of batteries and mobility device repairs to the list of items covered under the ODSP health benefits plan. 

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