Friday, December 29, 2006

Ottawa eyes expanded benefits

From Friday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — The federal government is examining ways of addressing a gap that leaves millions of Canadians affected by moderate disabilities and illnesses without income support.

A report for Human Resources and Social Development Canada, commissioned by the previous Liberal government but completed after the Conservatives took office last January, says workers and their families are vulnerable.

“Much more than a crack, the problem concerns the absence of a social-insurance program for millions of working Canadians whose work or earnings are interrupted because of illness or disability,” writes its author, University of Victoria professor Michael Prince.

The gap exists because employment insurance provides 15 weeks of benefits to people who are seriously ill but are otherwise able to do their jobs. The disability benefit offered through the Canada Pension Plan, on the other hand, is intended for people who are so incapacitated by illness or disability that they will not be able to return to work for at least a year.

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But there exists a whole range of illnesses, Dr. Prince says — including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus and even some types of cancer — that create episodes of incapacitation followed by periods of good health. These sufferers don't qualify for CPP when their EI runs out because they don't fit the government's definition of disabled.

And for those who do qualify, there is often a lapse after the 15-week period of EI ends and before CPP disability benefits kick in.

Cheryl Elliott, a 40-year-old nurse from Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa, is glad to hear Ottawa is acknowledging the hole that has engulfed her and others with moderate or episodic disabilities.

In 1998, Ms. Elliott was diagnosed with relapsing MS that left her paralyzed and using a wheelchair. She received EI benefits and started to gradually get better. But the benefits ran out before she was well enough to go back to work full-time. And she had no long-term or short-term disability insurance.

“I tried to return to my predisability employment as a nurse but I was given a job that I clearly could not do,” Ms. Elliott said yesterday.

Although many workers have access to long-term disability insurance — either privately or through their employers — to help bridge the period between the two programs, more than 7.3 million do not. They include more than 62 per cent of those who are self-employed and more than 44 per cent of people who are employed by somebody else.

Dr. Prince recommends three options to address the problem: extending EI sickness benefits, introducing a benefit within the CPP program that would cover partial disabilities, or creating a program that would fall between CPP and EI.

A subsequent analysis of Dr. Prince's report points out that he made no attempt to estimate the costs of those options. Dr. Prince agreed, during a telephone interview this week with The Globe and Mail, that a full costing would have to be done before the measures can be fully debated.

But he pointed out that while the Conservatives were in opposition they were on record as supporting an extension of EI benefits by 35 weeks to those who suffer from a serious or prolonged illness.

Colleen Cameron, a spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said yesterday: “We are aware of the concerns outlined in this report and that there are some persons with disabilities experiencing a gap in income supports. Our government continues to evaluate all programs and services to ensure they best meet the needs of Canadians. We are committed to supporting persons with disabilities and are looking into this issue.”

A departmental memorandum prepared for the assistant deputy minister in July of this year, and obtained by Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin, accepts the conclusions of Dr. Prince's report.

It says the objective of a new benefit policy would be to provide an incentive for people who have moderate or episodic illness to stay employed and to reduce the likelihood of disabled workers becoming fully dependent on income support.

The memorandum says more research must be done to document the gaps in coverage but it suggests that Dr. Prince's paper be shared with other sections of the department to develop a new policy.

Ms. Elliott said that she tried to re-enter the work force after her condition improved, but as soon as potential employers learned she had MS, the interviews ended. “It's not what I can provide to them,” she said, “it's, ‘How much of a liability are you going to be to me?' ”