Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Government cuts hurt people with disabilities

An opinion piece published in today's edition of The Chronicle Herald:
By Wayne MacNaughton [pictured]

Last week, the government announced that it was "clarifying" the rules around "special needs" for people living in poverty (re: "Social assistance won’t cover pot," Aug. 10). However, the news coverage thus far has failed to explain the scope and severity of the government cuts that have occurred, and the fact that they will hurt people living with disabilities, on fixed incomes, who cannot afford to pay for their own medical needs.

Far from simply "clarifying" the previous law, the amendments significantly reduce government assistance for essential health needs. In addition, people will be subject to a cookie-cutter approach: If their need does not fall within a pre-existing list, it will not be considered, no matter how essential for health or necessary to alleviate pain and suffering. The government cuts were made without notice, public consultation or input from health or disability rights groups.

The cutback on special needs will have a number of repercussions. On an individual basis, it will undermine people’s health, and increase pain and suffering. This is not good for society, but in addition it will increase the social burden on the health care system, as people struggle with poorly managed medical conditions and illnesses without access to the services they need.

People who had no other alternatives, who had a recommendation from their doctor and needed medication or other services to alleviate pain and suffering, or because it was essential to their health, could apply for "special needs" assistance. As a result of government amendments to the law, that access to those medications and services is now no longer available.

The Department of Community Services has suggested the cuts won’t have a big impact. But ask any person with disabilities who needs to pay higher rent to obtain allergen-free housing, or needs to meet the cost of the only medication that works but isn’t on the list of approved medications, or needs access to counselling for post-traumatic stress, and they will tell you these needs are essential, not frills.

Let’s look at the single biggest justification the government relies on in making these cuts: medical marijuana. Medical marijuana is prescribed by doctors for pain management. Patients who are permitted to use medical marijuana do so on a doctor’s recommendation, under a licence from Health Canada, where no other method or drug for pain management has worked. In denying access to medical marijuana, the government forces people back to reliance on Dilaudid and Oxycontin, drugs that have many more side effects and fewer positive individual outcomes, and have been the subject of inquiries and concerns regarding social costs and addictions. Big Pharma wins, and people with disabilities lose and the rest of us see Pharmacare costs escalate.

Don’t believe the government’s portrayal of "special needs" requests as frivolous wastes of taxpayers’ money. Under the previous regulations, needs that are "essential to health" and "necessary to alleviate pain and suffering" were recognized as "special" and people living in poverty were forced to meet a stringent test to qualify for assistance. These were needs that many of us take for granted because they are essential for health. (In an era when people are trying to decide whether to buy an iPhone 5 when they come out this fall, recipients of social assistance are not even given funding to have a basic telephone in order to look for a job.)

Why is the government cutting back on essential health services for people with disabilities? Figures cited by Community Services in a media release identify only 20 to 25 cases. The release fails to provide comparison figures for increases to other, already listed special needs and Pharmacare (formulary costs), or what we can expect in increased costs to the Pharmacare program and other health services as a result of these cutbacks. The auditor general’s report cited in the release criticizes government accounting procedures, but makes no recommendations concerning the merit of the requests and cannot be interpreted to justify these cutbacks.

Special needs assistance must be restored. When the law was introduced in 2001, special needs for people with disabilities was described as the "cornerstone" of the program. That cornerstone needs to be rebuilt, and fast, to avoid pain and suffering and protect the right to health of all Nova Scotians — including those living with disabilities.

Wayne MacNaughton is an anti-poverty activist living in Halifax.
Photo credit

Also see:

Critics slam changes to special-needs funding

Clear, Consistent Access to Special Needs Funding for People on Income Assistance

Welfare Rights Guide

Income Assistance and Nutrition: Are You Getting What You Need?

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