Seniors Advocate office isn't independent. It reports to the Ministry of Health

Seniors’ advocate strikes a chord

Lowest-income seniors are also the least likely to know about supports for rent, property tax and MSP premiums

VICTORIA – B.C.’s new seniors’ advocate has issued her second report, and the media mostly ignored it.

When this new office was promised by a campaigning Premier Christy Clark two years ago, I suggested that B.C. already has 85 seniors’ advocates. They’re called MLAs, and inquiries go to their local offices.

Much to the chagrin of the opposition, Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie’s mandate is not to pursue individual cases, and so she won’t be serving up a fresh assortment of horror stories to embarrass the government.

Instead, it is to look for “systemic challenges” and recommend ways to deal with them. The latest report is based on a survey of more than 500 seniors from around the province, and the key finding was not what she expected.

“We were surprised to learn of the lack of awareness among seniors, particularly low-income seniors, of government programs and the subsidies available to assist them,” Mackenzie said.

The survey found that 60 per cent of seniors living on $30,000 or less annual income didn’t know they are eligible for discounts on Medical Services Plan premiums. For income less than $22,000, the entire $864 cost of individual MSP premiums is waived.

Other frequently overlooked programs are a monthly rent subsidy called Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER), grants for disability modifications called Home Adaptations for Independence, drug cost assistance called Fair Pharmacare, property tax deferment and the federal Guaranteed Income Supplement program. Those older than 75 with income of less than $30,000 reported the lowest awareness of assistance designed specifically for them. But you don’t get these benefits unless you apply and show that your income qualifies.

The survey also found that the biggest fear of low-income seniors is that they won’t be able to afford to stay in their homes. See home adaptation, property tax and rent subsidy programs above.

Awareness and usage of the SAFER program was lowest in the north and highest in urban areas, perhaps not surprising since the B.C. government exists more in theory than in fact in many remote places.

So what should the government do about this? Well, it could advertise these programs. The government does lots of advertising, but not about old news like the SAFER program, which dates back to the 1970s.

Clark’s government did a whack of advertising in the election year, 2013. Much of it was about the B.C. Jobs Plan, heavy on the hardhats and blueprint-style graphics and arc welding and stuff like that.

Then last year the government’s big ad campaign was around the teachers’ strike, and the payments to parents to help with child care while teachers demanded twice as big a raise as all the other unions.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender is still bragging about the response rate for $40-a-day parental strike pay, which was snapped up by almost 100 per cent of eligible parents. This demonstrates that the government can indeed give away money with great efficiency, just by telling people how to get it.

The NDP’s version of seniors’ advocacy is to find the most tragic problems from complaints coming into constituency offices, and use those to ambush the government.

A popular choice is an elderly couple who have to be separated because their medical needs are too different to keep them in the same facility. TV news loves that one. People cry on camera and denounce politicians for being heartless, as if the health minister stayed up late plotting how to break their granny’s heart.

Maybe this seniors’ advocate wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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