Blog | April 17, 2013

By Noel Somerville, Edmonton JournalTo avoid addressing Alberta’s revenue problems, the provincial government apparently has decided to balance its books on the backs of seniors and other vulnerable Albertans.Once again, as then health minister Ron Liepert did in 2008, the government plans to eliminate the universal seniors drug plan. The excuse this time is to create a means-tested plan to cover low-income Albertans who do not have access to coverage.The actual reason is to reduce government expenditures and, interestingly, while it claims the details have not been worked out, the government seems to know that it will save $180 million.The first problem with this proposal is it replaces a universal plan that covers all seniors with a means-tested plan that seniors regard as charity. A second problem is that 80 per cent of prescription drugs are used by 20 per cent of the sickest citizens, many of them seniors. Since when was it acceptable public policy to dump Alberta’s fiscal problems onto people because they are sick?The ultimate problem with this approach is it is based on a failed plan that has been in effect in British Columbia for a decade. The B.C. plan failed to reduce government expenditures because its effect was simply to transfer costs. Seniors who could no longer afford their medications got sick and cost the government more in hospital costs than was saved in the ill-conceived drug program.In another attempt to curtail government costs, about 9,000 low-income Alberta seniors will lose the income supplement of the Alberta Seniors Benefit because of two changes.First, the imposition of a 10-year residency requirement will eliminate about 3,000 recipients. Second, in the interest of so-called “harmonization” with federal income calculations that include Canada Pension Plan Disability benefits and Workers’ Compensation benefits as income, another 6,000 recipients will lose eligibility for the Alberta Seniors Benefit.The catastrophic loss of benefits to these 9,000 seniors could have been avoided by simply increasing the income threshold for eligibility, but that would not have saved the government any money.Also set for elimination in 2014 is the Seniors School Property Tax Assistance Program, which helps about 70,000 Alberta seniors.It will be replaced with the Seniors Property Tax Deferral Program. This new program gives seniors two options: either they pay the full amount of education and municipal property taxes now, or they pay it in the future, with interest, when they sell their home.This is another program move likely to have unintended consequences. By losing the shielding from increases in the education portion of property taxes, fewer seniors will find it possible to remain in their own homes as long as they would like, and they will increase the pressure for more institutional accommodation.Along with these program cuts, many of the worst effects of government efforts to reduce its health-care spending will fall on seniors.Alberta Health Services has been forced to curtail home-care costs. For example, a 91-year-old blind lady in an assisted-living facility has been told she no longer qualifies for home care to transport her to the dining room. She will now have to pay $200 a month to have a staff member do that for her.The program that provides home care to post-operative patients has been cut and the maximum amount of services per patient has been reduced from $4,500 to $4,000 a month. If post-operative patients, many of them seniors, cannot access the home care they need, many will return to hospital at costs exceeding $1,000 a day.Nor is the government providing the capital spending needed for seniors care. The 2013-14 budget provides only $5 million for a private facility in Lloydminster and a grand total of 100 continuing care beds in Fort McMurray.Funding for the Affordable Supportive Living Initiative is set at $50 million this year and only $25 million in the next two years. There goes another promise: to build 1,000 long-term care spaces per year for each of the next five years.Because of negative reaction, the Alberta government had to beat a hasty retreat from the ill-conceived Pharmaceutical Strategy and Continuing Care Strategy announced in December 2008. I sincerely hope Alberta seniors will deliver the same response to Premier Redford’s 2013-14 budget.Noel Somerville is chair of the Seniors Task Force at Public Interest Alberta.This Op-Ed was published in the Edmonton Journal on April 17, 2013. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.