Feds mull automatic OAS, GIS

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 11th, 2010. To go to the Ottawa Citizen website please The Ottawa Citizen

Thousands of low-income seniors who lose out on benefits every year because they don’t realize they qualify could receive their payments automatically without even applying.

Such a service, urged by seniors’ advocates for years, could be considered when the Harper government studies the final report of its secretive administrative-services review, which is supposed to find ways to save money and improve services. The report was to go to cabinet this month to present options for the upcoming budget.

Improving seniors’ access to benefits would be a “home run” in the drive to transform service, Daniel Jean, the deputy minister who led the review, said recently.

Not only would seniors benefit, it would get rid of a cumbersome application processes, reduce duplication and deal with some of the aging technology Auditor General Sheila Fraser has sounded the alarm over, Jean said.

“We are improving the service experience for senior citizens so they no longer need to apply,” Jean told a recent Conference Board meeting on public service transformation.

“We’re eliminating a business line and people needing to be processed, so there’s a huge efficiency gain and huge cost avoidance.”

Jean said service to seniors could be improved by using the tax system to flag Canadians whose income-tax returns show they qualify for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Payments could be sent automatically to them so they don’t have to apply.

Jean didn’t refer to the Canada Pension Plan, but seniors’ advocates said it could be offered the same way.

The Canadian Association of Retired Persons has pressed for such changes for years, said Susan Eng, its vice-president of advocacy. She said she’s surprised the review team would resurrect the idea because politicians have been against it in the past because of cost.

Eng said the problem is that seniors must apply for their OAS, CPP and GIS benefits and some don’t because they don’t know how. If they do apply a year or two later, they discover they can only receive 11 months’ retroactive payments.

However, such changes wouldn’t help the low-income seniors who don’t file tax returns.

“It is not an answer for the government to hide in the bushes and say that we need to keep letting people miss out on getting their full entitlements because we can’t afford to pay it out properly,” Eng said.

“This is especially pernicious with CPP, since people paid CPP premiums all their working lives for that pension and limiting them to 11 months’ retroactive is patently unfair.”

In 2006, Fraser estimated more than four million people received OAS totalling $28 billion and that the number will double by 2030.

At one point in recent years only 60 to 70 per cent of eligible seniors were getting their CPP or GIS, Eng said. By comparison, she said, the take-up is closer to 95 per cent in Quebec, where the province administers the QPP and bureaucrats contacted all eligible seniors.