Privacy Rules Deny Thousands Income

Seniors, poor not told they qualify for money; Revenue Canada says it can't share information

Jen Ross
The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, September 09, 2001

Fifty thousand low-income widows are not receiving the federal spousal allowances to which they are entitled because of departmental information-sharing barriers and "confidentiality issues."

They are among more than 382,000 low-income seniors that are not getting essential government benefits such as spousal allowances and Guaranteed Income Supplements (GIS) because they don't know -- and aren't being told -- they qualify.

Government officials are now trying to figure out how to rectify the problem.

Income-tax returns easily reveal when someone is eligible. But if a person hasn't applied for the supplement, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency officials say they can't tell them to.

Agency spokesman Michel Proulx said part of the problem is inter-departmental -- Human Resources Development Canada doles out the benefits.

"You're stuck between two ministries here," said Mr. Proulx. "Our responsibility is to assess tax returns. When we have a situation when an individual is qualifying and not receiving benefits, that's not our mandate. I mean, we have a thousand other things to do."

Moreover, he said Revenue employees cannot share information with HRDC because of the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act.

Sue Pitts, director of HRDC's old age security program, said the two departments are considering several strategies to catch those falling between the cracks. She said Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart has asked the department to determine if seniors could apply directly for the GIS on their tax return. The departments are also considering a box on tax returns that people could tick to allow revenue officials to give information to HRDC.

CCRA currently does share some tax information with HRDC. For example, it will alert HRDC on how much old age security benefits they can claw back if a recipient's income rises above a certain level.

Social policy consultant Richard Shillington argues that if the government can share tax information to deny or reduce someone's benefits, there is no excuse not to use it to increase benefits. Mr. Shillington first blew the whistle on the shortfall while doing research for St. Christopher House, a Toronto community social service agency. He found that at least 330,000 eligible seniors were missing out on benefits totalling about $500 million between them.

The group most in the dark about their potential benefits are widows between the age of 60 and 64. Ms. Pitts confirmed that just 39 per cent received their Allowance for Survivors in 1998-99. That's only 33,000 beneficiaries of the 83,000 eligible.

Only 55 per cent of those in that age group with living spouses received their allowance.

Of low-income seniors over 65 who are eligible for the GIS, Ms. Pitts said 70 per cent of one-pension couples, 78 per cent of two-pension couples, and 82 per cent of single seniors got their supplement.

Mr. Shillington recently learned that if seniors now discover they have been eligible for the GIS for the past five years, HRDC will only give them one year of retroactive benefits.

Shirley Dmytruk, president of the watchdog group United Senior Citizens of Ontario, finds the whole situation unacceptable.

"Unfortunately, seniors are the kind of people who would say something is better than nothing and just take it," she said. "But there are seniors like me who would be indignant to think that some poor soul can't get what they're entitled to."

Ms. Dmytruk said seniors are disproportionately affected by poverty, which makes the supplements all the more essential.

Ms. Pitts said HRDC has been trying to promote the supplement for years, through outreach officers, a standardized letter in T4 statements for Old Age Security recipients, posters and brochures.

But Mr. Shillington said that isn't enough.

"I'm saying forget their little posters and their general advisements and send a piece of paper in their tax return," he said.

But CCRA insists that specifically contacting those who qualify would violate their privacy.

"Logically, we should be doing it, but legally we can't violate our confidentiality agreement," said Mr. Proulx. "Three years ago, we were giving HRDC information on UI fraud and we got our fingers slapped for sharing confidential information, so we have to follow the letter of the law."

Mr. Shillington says that's a lame excuse.

"They say your privacy isn't violated when they look at your income tax return, it's only violated when they call you about it," he said. "That's like saying your privacy is not violated by a Peeping Tom, it's only violated when he waves."

Officials in the Privacy Commissioner's office would not comment on whether contacting seniors would violate privacy laws. They said the commissioner is talking with both departments to reach a solution.

Old age security pensions put $436.55 a month in the pockets of Canadians over the age of 65. The GIS is an additional supplement for low-income seniors receiving the OAS. Single seniors with an annual income below $12,456 are entitled to a maximum of $518.82 monthly and senior couples with incomes below $30,192 are entitled to between $337.94 and $518.82 under the GIS.

Widowers between the age of 60 and 64, making less than $17,064qualify for $855.05 a month under the Allowance for Survivors.

Ms. Pitts said a total of 1,368,918 seniors did receive the GIS in 1998; another 97,087 received spousal allowances.

Seniors who want to know if they qualify can call 1-800-277-9914.

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