Aug. 23, 01
Seniors Not Told of Millions in Benefits
380,000 eligible not notified due to privacy concerns
Elaine O'Connor -Staff Reporter

More than 380,000 eligible Canadians over 65 are due hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal government benefits, statistics show, but officials say they cannot be contacted due to privacy issues. Low-income seniors who have not formally applied for the Guaranteed Income Supplement, but whose tax returns indicate they qualify, are doing without.

Susan Pitts, director of Human Resources Development Canada's (HRDC) Old Age Security program, said 82 per cent of entitled single seniors were receiving the supplement, according to her most recent figures from 1998.But the percentage of seniors who received benefits varied according to category. Seventy-eight per cent of two-pension couples, 70 per cent of one-pension couples and just 55 per cent of seniors on spousal allowance got their supplement. According to these percentages, although a total of 1,380,339 seniors received the benefit in 1998, another 382,058 eligible seniors did not. The supplement was introduced to aid the poorest of Canada's seniors over the age of 65. Single seniors with an annual income below $12,456 are entitled to a maximum of $518.82 monthly; senior couples with incomes below $30,192 are due between $337.94 and $518.82.

``Why doesn't HRDC write a letter to . . . people that says, `According to our records, you're eligible for this Guaranteed Income Supplement'?'' asked Richard Shillington, an Ottawa social policy statistician who discovered the discrepancy during research for the Toronto community agency St. Christopher House last fall.Pitts said the agency can't alert potential recipients because it would invade their privacy. ``We get the information from CCRA (Canada Customs and Revenue Agency) only for those who have applied in previous years, and because of privacy issues, we can only get information on our clients,'' she said, adding that her department did mail out general information with T4 slips.

The human resources department's 2001 report shows that 1,379,202 seniors received the supplement. The agency estimates it will pay out $5.236 billion in supplement expenditures for 2001-2002. ``Even if HRDC isn't supposed to see your tax return, there's no violation of privacy if Revenue Canada wrote a letter,'' Shillington countered. ``Why wouldn't Revenue Canada just mail them a cheque?''

As debate over proper administration continues, seniors are living on less because they aren't being educated about their entitlement, say community workers and researchers.

``The federal government does put out some publications around people's entitlements, but . . . I've looked at it and I thought it was very hard to wade through,'' said Sue Cox of the Daily Bread Food Bank. ``The smartest thing would be to send them a letter.''

A recent Daily Bread Food Bank survey of 800 clients found that increasingly, seniors are doing without.

The rate of seniors over 65 using the Toronto food bank has doubled from 2.5 in 1995 to 5 per cent of the 800 surveyed.

One-quarter of senior users polled - almost all of whom were eligible - were not receiving Canada Pension Plan payments, while only 15 per cent of the seniors were getting the income supplement, though nearly all were eligible.

The survey also indicated that more and more, senior users are living with disabilities - 54 per cent of today's users, up from 37 per cent in 1995 - yet only 30 per cent of them got Ontario disability support payments. The food bank served 140,000 people this year.

``There are a number of benefits they don't seem to be getting,'' Cox said, referring to the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Ontario disability support payments.

Community workers agree there is an awareness problem.

``If I see somebody is not getting the supplement, I do a quick check,'' said Julia Wilson, a volunteer who prepares low-income seniors' tax returns for Senior Peoples Resources in North Toronto. Wilson said she's seen an improvement in the number of her clients who are getting the supplement since the early 1990s. But, she said, ``I have a feeling that some people still may be falling through the cracks.''

Other seniors' social agencies agree. ``In terms of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, there are a lot of people who are not aware of that,'' said Judith Leon of Senior Link. ``It would be a very rare day before a senior actually said to (social workers), `I don't think I'm getting enough money.' ''Senior Link helps roughly 25 of 2,000 clients secure benefits each year.

Leon said the real reasons seniors don't apply is that they often can't understand eligibility requirements, tax returns or educational pamphlets due to functional illiteracy, language barriers or failing eyesight. But now more than ever, she added, it's vital that seniors receive full benefits, since rent and heating costs are increasing. The food bank reported that Toronto seniors' median incomes after rent are in decline, down to $6.45 a day from $11.50 in 1995.

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