McGuinty's axing of the Special Diet program is a catastrophe to poor and sick Ontarians

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Single parents with two children are up by just $10 a month in Ontario, thanks to the McGuinty government's Budget on March 25. This was their response to Dalton McGuinty's re-election campaign promise to reduce poverty in the province -- the raising of social assistance rates by 1 per cent. 

The Ontario government also announced it will cancel the Special Diet Allowance it provides to people on Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). This social assistance provision, used by 20 per cent of welfare and disability recipients, provided people with up to $250 extra a month to help buy fresh fruits and vegetables and other medically necessary dietary items.

Doing the math on poverty reduction, increasing welfare and disability support payment rates by 1 per cent does not compensate for the loss of up to $250, making this the deepest support payment cutback since Mike Harris slashed welfare rates in 1995.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty calculates that the, "elimination of the Special Diet Benefit will result in a 3 per cent cut to the income of poor people on social assistance. This is only the third time in Ontario history that a government has slashed income to the poor -- Hepburn did it in '38, Harris in '95, and McGuinty in the 2010 Budget."

The Special Diet Allowance feeds 160,000 people across Ontario, people who will have to find a new way to balance paying the rent and feeding the kids. Video testimony regarding how the cuts will affect poor people in Ontario can be accessed by clicking here

The Liberal government will phase out the allowance over the next few months to give people time to adjust. There have been rumours that a new medical supplement plan may be developed by the Ministry of Health.

With the Ontario government facing a $21.3 billion deficit, Premier McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan made cuts by asking others to make sacrifices.

Poverty makes Ontarian's sick

Food security -- hunger -- is not an issue people often associate with a developed world, G8-member nation such as Canada. Our minds instead flash back stereotypically to far away countries with dark-skinned people starving to death.

But according to the World Food Summit report in 1996, "Hunger does not necessarily refer to poverty-stricken countries... it can also refer to low/no-income individuals within a society experiencing economic growth. Although their situations are vastly different from those of the poorer countries, they are also entirely the same and connected. Hunger is hunger regardless of nationality, class, age, race, sex.

In 2009, 51.5 per cent of those assisted by food banks in Canada were receiving social assistance. According to Food Banks Canada, this suggests that, "welfare rates in Canada do not do enough to ensure food security for low-income Canadians." 

The Canadian Association of Food Banks released a report titled: Hunger Count 2006 which found, "on average, 78 per cent of food bank clients are unable to afford fresh fruit and vegetables; 80 per cent are unable to afford meat, fish or poultry; and 57 per cent are unable to afford milk and milk products. All food bank clients are at risk for malnutrition and the reason for omitting food groups is due to low income."

The Special Diet

Access to the Special Diet Allowance has been available to OW and ODSP recipients since 1998 to provide supplemental funds above the basic benefit structure provided by the government.

To qualify for up to $250 a month per person, a recipient (or their dependents) needed a prescription from a qualified healthcare practitioner stating their patient had one or more of the selected criteria of acceptable medical conditions. This allowed poor people to buy such things as fresh fruit and vegetables or protein rich foods, etc.

For example: cardiovascular disease ($10), soya allergies ($83), diabetes ($42), chronic constipation ($10).

This allowance was a little known and accessed provision until the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and its allies decided to start a public education campaign and provide access to doctors through public health clinics in its 2005 Raise the Rates campaign.

The year 2005 was pivotal for advocates of the Special Diet. In November 2005, the government of Ontario made drastic changes to the Special Diet Allowance which activists saw as a backlash to OCAP's success in getting people signed up. From March to June, 2005, there was a 31 per cent increase in the number of Ontario Works recipients in Toronto getting the allowance and a 17 per cent increase among those on ODSP. Also, more recipients and their families were receiving the full $250.

The government intervention in 2005 changed the schedule from an open ended list of needed diets to a list of 43 medical conditions on which a special diet allowance could be based.

Illnesses such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy were not included on this list. Also, many of the allowance amounts were significantly reduced; for example, for serious diseases such as multiple sclerosis, the changes saw its allowance reduced to zero. As a result, hundreds of complaints were filed with the Social Benefits Tribunal and the Ontario Human Rights Commission on the basis of discrimination.

An independent committee of health practitioners was struck in early 2006 and it put forward a number of improvements in 2008 but the Ontario government has not acted upon these recommendations.

There are currently over 162,000 people in Ontario who will now lose the extra money the Special Diet Allowance provided.

The success of the program, by raising awareness that the program existed among poor and marginalized communities and by increasing the access to health professionals, caused the cost of the program to soar from $6 million in 2003 to $200 million in 2008.

The government saw this success as a problem, just as it did in 2005 when it first tightened the eligibility rules. In both cases, the specter of potential fraud was raised.

Now, the McGuinty government cited an Ontario Auditor General's report released in late 2009 which found among many other points, that more $1.2 billion had been overpaid to people on disability supports and welfare; that only minimal efforts are made to get the money back; and not enough is being done to prevent overpayments in the first place.

While the report's section on the Community and Social Services focused on how civil servants were lax in their response to cases of fraud -- only one small paragraph was devoted to the Special Diet Allowance questioning the accuracy and fallibility of its application method -- the government now seems to be focusing on this sole point to insinuate that the rise in the number of people accessing the Special Diet Allowance must be the result of fraud.

The government is also accusing doctors of fraud, including the investigation into the practices of Toronto doctor Roland Wong. The College of Surgeons and Physicians of Ontario (CSPO) is investigating whether he bent eligibility rules or claimed multiple members of one family had the same medical condition.

Complaints regarding the government's decision to deny individuals the Special Diet Allowance after the 2005 changes began to build within the government review structure and externally though the human rights court. In 2008, the Ontario Human Rights Commission referred around 200 complaints to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and of these, five lead cases went forward to adjudication.

On February 17, 2010, the Tribunal released its decision, stating of the three lead cases presented, the Special Diet Allowance rulings violated their human rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code because it amounts to discrimination based on disability.

Addressing the rampant rumours before the Ontario Budget that the Special Diet would soon be cancelled because of its success rate, Cindy Wilkey of the Income Security Advocacy Centre commented, "canceling the program would put the health of thousands of people at risk, impairing their ability to meet dietary needs that are recognized components of medical treatment."

It would be foolish to think the Tribunal's review on the Special Diet should be blamed for its cancellation.

Ontarians on OW and ODSP who will soon lose their Special Diet Allowance needed the program to change, not for it to be cancelled outright by panicked politicians. And the cancellation should certainly not be framed as a fraud-prevention measure as that only seeks to further undermine an already fragile population by imposing the assumption of criminality.

OCAP has already hit the streets regarding protesting the cut.

On April 3, 2010, about 20 people on social assistance, supporters and members of OCAP confronted Ontario Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, on live television during the taping of TVO's The Agenda. On April 15, over 700 people rallied first at Allen Garden's for a meal and then marched to the Ministry of Communities and Social Services to launch its formal campaign to prevent the cancellation of the Allowance. Its latest public meeting on May 2, 2010 hashed out future plans.

In its manifesto, OCAP has declared: "Over the next few months OCAP will confront Liberal government leaders at their local offices, we will challenge them in any and all public spaces; we will work to make them thoroughly unwelcome in our communities across Ontario. This government is scared of being challenged and of civil unrest -- we need now to deliver a level of disruption that creates a crisis for McGuinty.

What poor people in Ontario need is not a 1 per cent hike in welfare rates nor another severely restrictive hand out. What they really need is a whole systems change regarding how the Ontario government provides for the health and welfare of its poorest citizens and their families.

By cutting off the Special Diet, the government is essentially stealing food off poor people's plates.


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