You are here:

Disability Delays "unjust"; Ombud Slams "morally Repugnant" Rule That Shortchanges Benefits

Editor's Note: In addition to delayed and/or lost benefits referred to below, persons with disabilities and their advocates have expressed concern over the recent â

Dan Nolan couldn't buy enough food or get winter boots for his 10-year-old daughter because the province delayed and shortchanged the disability benefits he was due following a serious back injury.

Dianna Wyatt had to sell family heirlooms, do laundry in her bathtub and ate nothing but bread for weeks to make ends meet because she, too, was shortchanged benefits.

Ontario's Ombud, Andre Marin, has called on the government to pay Nolan, Wyatt and tens of thousands of other disabled Ontarians millions of dollars in unpaid benefits.

The way the government runs the Ontario Disability Support Program is "unreasonable, unjust, oppressive and wrong," Marin said in releasing his findings yesterday.

The main problem: It takes the government an average of eight months to process an application for disability support and there's a rule stating the government will only pay four months of retroactive benefits.

That "morally repugnant" rule shortchanges disabled people months of needed benefits.

"It seems beyond obvious that a seriously disabled, impoverished individual should lose out on benefits they would otherwise be entitled to, solely by reason of the ministry's delay or error," Marin said.

Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur said the government is in the process of revoking, and has already stopped enforcing, the four-month rule, as a result of Marin's investigation. She wouldn't say whether the government will pay restitution to those already caught by it.

"My staff is working right now with the ministry of finance, and we will report back on what we will be accomplishing," Meilleur said.

The province spends $2.43 billion annually on support payments for more than 215,000 Ontarians with severe physical and mental disabilities, according to the ministry of community and social services. For a single person, the maximum payment is $959 a month.

The government has been benefiting financially because of the backlog and the four-month rule, Marin said.

"It's as if the citizens with disabilities in Ontario have unwittingly been providing the government of Ontario an interest-free loan to run the province. ... It's time to return the money to these people," Marin said.

From the 21-month period ending Dec. 31, 2005, the government owes at least 4,630 people $6 million in unpaid benefits, Marin said. But the government needs to go back as far as 1998, when the four-month rule was brought in, he said.

"The $6 million is an ultra-conservative figure. It could be double, it could be triple or more," Marin said, adding that the government record keeping for most years is so bad he can't say just how many people have been affected or how much is owed. Whatever it is, it should be paid, he said.

"This is money that doesn't belong to the government. (It) shouldn't have had it in the first place."

"These are not individuals who are looking to profit from the government coffers. They are not malingerers, or welfare fraud artists. They are the very persons the Ontario Disability Support Program was intended to serve."

Wyatt, 46, who worked as a counsellor and computer technician before she had to leave the workforce a year ago because of chronic depression, said she was thrilled with Marin's report.

"Whether I get the money due to me or not, the people who come after me will be treated as human beings," said Wyatt, who was shortchanged three months of $679 payments.

"They're not there to help you, they're there because you might rip them off," Wyatt said of the attitude of ministry staff with whom she dealt.

"You have to really fight to get anything, but the reason someone is on disability is because something is wrong. How are they supposed to fight?"

Lyndsey Aukema, 19, has myotonic dystrophy and cerebral palsy. She has trouble walking, has the mental capacity of a toddler, and she'll never be able to work or care for herself.

"Incredibly, it took the (government) eight months to figure out that she was a person with a substantial disability," Marin said.

She is owed $2,500 because of a delay in getting adult disability payments.

Before she turned 18, Aukema, like other severely disabled kids, received support under a program for children. When they turn 18, the government forces them to apply all over again to get adult funding under the Ontario Disability Support Program--where they hit months of delay and lose out on payments because of the four-month rule.

The four-month rule was originally an internal performance standard--the maximum length of time the government should take to process an application, Marin said. Over time, it became twisted into a "hammer" that was used against the disabled, he said.

Meilleur said her government was saddled with a system, set up by the previous Progressive Conservative government, that doesn't work.

But Marin said the problems with the backlog and the rigid use of the four-month rule have become worse under the Liberal government.

Reprinted with permission--Torstar Syndication Services.