Feds mull automatic payments to seniors

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette December 13th, 2010. To go to the Montreal Gazette website please click here

OTTAWA — 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.

It’s a service seniors’ advocates have wanted for years, and could be one of the options the Harper government considers when it studies the final report of its secretive administrative services review. That effort is supposed to find ways to save money and improve services. The report was to go to cabinet this month to consider options for the upcoming budget.

Daniel Jean, the deputy minister who led the review, offered a rare glimpse into the closely-guarded review at a recent Conference Board meeting on public service transformation. He said improving seniors’ access to benefits would be a “home run” in the drive to transform service.

Not only would the proposal improve service for seniors, it would get rid of a cumbersome application process, 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 the conference.

“We’re eliminating a business line and people needing to be processed so there’s a huge efficiency gain and huge cost avoidance. Because we all know the demographics of Canada and if we were to try and continue to serve seniors in the same way for Old Age Security and GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) the cost would (increase).”

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

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

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

Eng said seniors must apply for their benefits and some don’t because they don’t know how. If they do apply a year or two later, when they figure it out or someone helps them, they discover they can only receive 11 months’ retroactive payments.

“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,” said Eng.

“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.”

© Montreal Gazette

Keywords: seniors, pension reform