Victoria senior Doreen Gee faced a difficult decision two years ago — either she applied for an early, reduced benefit from the Canada Pension Plan, or she would lose her disability income and benefits.
“I was told my cheque would be withheld if I didn’t sign the form,” said Gee, 63. “I was coerced and forced into this. I felt my rights as a senior were violated.”
Gee will have a reduced pension for the rest of her life.
A provincial policy enacted in 1999 requires any person on a disability income to seek all other forms of income first — including the Canada Pension Plan. That means B.C. residents who receive disability assistance are told to apply for early reduced CPP or risk being cut off from provincial funds and medical services.
“Pretty much everybody on [a disability pension] gets a letter saying this when they turn 60,” said Lin Fraser, co-ordinator for the Action Committee of People with Disabilities in Victoria, which is fighting to change the policy.
The ultimatum is unfair, Fraser said, because most Canadians can choose when to draw from CPP. They can opt to receive reduced pension benefits at age 60, wait until 65 to receive full benefits, or postpone getting CPP until age 70, when they’ll receive an increased amount for the rest of their lives.
At 65, a person on provincial disability assistance is moved to an income made up of Old Age Security, CPP and, if they are low-income, Guaranteed Income Supplement. In most cases, they can keep their provincial medical benefits.
However, any money a person with a disability receives from CPP that pushes them over the allowable total income of $906 per month is clawed back from their disability benefits. This can range from a few dollars to hundreds, depending on the size of the pension. Fraser said this is doubly unfair because people on disability can earn up to an extra $800 a month, but the government won’t allow them to count CPP as part of that allowance.
“People become very incensed that they worked and paid into CPP and then are forced to a decision that only benefits the province for five years but affects them for life.”
B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie said concerns about the policy are valid. “We have reduced the income of seniors for life for a population … that are already low-income,” said Mackenzie, whose mandate is to advocate for those aged 65 and older.
She noted most seniors on provincial disability assistance receive extended medical coverage, including dental and optical, which other low-income seniors do not.
In 2014, NDP MLA Michelle Mungall raised the issue in question period, noting that one Island resident who contacted her saw a 33 per cent reduction in his benefits.
Ontario, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland and Labrador recently ended or never had policies requiring seniors with disabilities to take early CPP. However, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick have policies similar to B.C’s.
“Other provinces have seen that this is actually age discrimination,” Mungall said. “For those who have struggles, particularly those with disabilities being forced into further poverty, policies like this are a serious concern.”
Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell said that, while she recognizes “it can sometimes be difficult to get by financially on a fixed income,” the province has no plans to change the policy or allow CPP as earned income.
“Earnings exemptions are provided as an incentive to work. They are designed to help people pay for employment-related costs such as child care, transportation or tools.”
Stilwell said the policies are not about cost savings. “I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this is a budget line item. The expectation is for people to pursue all other income sources before relying on provincial assistance. That includes pension income, whether it is public or private and other assets such as an RRSP,” she said, noting the government will spend $1.7 billion on income and disability assistance this fiscal year.
Stilwell said someone who chooses not to apply for early CPP benefits would be considered ineligible for income assistance.
“To my knowledge, there have been a small number of cases where an individual has chosen not to take early CPP,” she said, but the government does not have statistics on this, or whether those people were cut off from provincial assistance and benefits as a result.