Disability and Cost Cutting

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Helen Keller

As Alberta’s fiscal situation worsens, the United Conservative Party (UCP) is searching the sofa cushions for loose change.  They have focused on a financial program for the disabled.  

There are two welfare programs for people who have disabilities.  One is call ‘Barriers to Full Employment’ The other is called Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH).  

So, if you have a substantial, permanent disability you are deemed to be severely handicapped.  You need a doctor’s certification and you can’t have many assets or much income.  The living allowance is almost $17,000 per year. There are also some emergency, health and child benefits that can be accessed. 

But if you aren’t ‘severely handicapped’ it is presumed you can obtain employment, thus you get less money – about half as much.

Data Courtesy Maytree.com

AISH clients with physical disabilities account for 44% of the cases; followed by mental illness 30% and cognitive disorders 25%.  42% of the caseload are aged 50 and higher. 86% of the clients are single.

In 2020, there were 69,800 cases in Alberta’s AISH program costing $1.3 billion. The caseload has risen steadily over the last two decades.  Alberta’s trendline is comparable to increases of similar programs in BC and Ontario. Alberta’s caseload volumes (1.6% of the population) and growth trends are not out of whack with other provinces.

Throughout the world the drivers behind the increased numbers of disabilities are aging and the increase of chronic diseases.

Caseload increases rising somewhat higher than population growth

In September 2020, a government whistleblower alerted the media that an AISH program review would lead to reductions in the program.  The media, NDP opposition and AISH recipients started asking questions.   Social services Minister Rajan quickly announced that no cuts would be made to the program.  She said, “Finally, to conclude, let me state definitively that there will be no cuts to AISH financial benefits”.

But soon the Premier stepped on that messaging.  He said, But the population of people qualifying has been growing far, far faster than the overall population and so they have to look at issues like that — what are the criteria? How do we define severely handicapped in this day and age?”  And a Twitter barrage by one of the Premier’s staff implied mental illnesses “like ADHD and anxiety, etc. on lifetime AISH coverage” might not really qualify as a severe disability.

By politicizing the issue, the UCP demonstrated they are not “disability friendly”! 

  • In 2019, they shifted the payment dates so the year-end budget deficit would not be quite so bleak.  
  • To save $10 million annually they stopped increasing the funding with inflation, so the purchasing power per case would drop about $35 annually.
  • The Premier and his office went on to infer that:
    • Costs are out of control
    • Program funding is too generous
    • The mental health criteria are too loose
    • Clients once approved, are not monitored

The NDP and others were quick to blacken the Premier’s eye! They pointed to a stunning lack of empathy, poor timing during the pandemic and other government expenditures that would make better targets.

Severely normal Albertans should hope that politicians stop using the program as a political football.  Politicians on both sides of the issue ought to stand down until a professional review is completed. This is not the right moment to draw conclusions and lock in policy positions.  

The question the review ought to answer should be: “Is the program achieving the desired outcomes”?  “What are the drivers leading to caseload growth?”

Instead, the review appears to focus on cost cutting on a program that serves a highly vulnerable segment of the population.