The Opposition and disability advocates are calling on the Alberta government to pledge it will leave benefits for people with severe disabilities untouched.
They were responding to a Friday report that the United Conservative Party government is considering cuts to the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program in 2021.
The Calgary Herald reported that the provincial government was looking at cutting benefits to the 70,000 Albertans who receive AISH. The CBC has not independently confirmed this.
Ryan Hastman, senior adviser to Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney, said on Friday the minister is in the process of “looking at” all of the ministry’s programs. He did not dispute the report about potential AISH cuts coming.
“No decisions have been made and supports remain available to those who need them,” he said in an email. “We are taking a close look at all of our programs, including AISH, so we can ensure they are delivered sustainably and supports continue to be available for those who need them.”
People who are permanently unable to work due to a medical condition receive about $1,600 a month through the program.
Cutting AISH could increase health costs, advocate says
Trish Bowman, CEO of Inclusion Alberta, said she was devastated to hear the government considering reductions to AISH benefits.
Such a reduction would be a short-sighted move that would ultimately cost the government more in health and mental health care services, she said.
Despite the province’s lopsided balance sheet, the provincial government has found and spent additional money on part ownership of an oil pipeline and accelerating infrastructure projects like bridge and highway repairs, Bowman said.
“They’re not going to fix the economic situation solely by cutting costs,” she said. “There’s a revenue issue, and that needs to be looked at, and further disadvantaging people for being part of the labour market isn’t going to contribute to economic recovery.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the minister’s lack of denial about cuts is telling. She called on Sawhney to unequivocally rule out reducing benefits.
“The fact that they didn’t, in politics, is code for, ‘Oh yeah, this is seriously being considered,’ ” Notley said.
Hastman did not comment on Notley’s claim.
Should the government reduce AISH benefits, it would be a cruel broken promise from the government, Notley said. Quoting Premier Jason Kenney and other UCP MLAs’ past comments on the program, Notley said it would be an about-face for the government to slash a program that members professed was essential while they were in opposition.
AISH caseload expected to rise by five per cent yearly
The UCP’s 2019 election platform makes no mention of AISH, but does pledge $10 million over four years for employment opportunities for people with disabilities, post-secondary scholarships and expanding family resource centres.
The 2020-21 provincial budget had allotted $1.29 billion for AISH this year. Hastman said this is the largest amount to date. The program’s budget is projected to grow to $1.44 billion by 2022-23 as the number of people receiving AISH grows by an estimated five per cent per year, he said.
“Currently, caseloads are growing far beyond the rate of population growth (1.6%) and cost increases are not sustainable,” he said. “As we launch Alberta’s recovery plan, we will continue to review all aspects of our programs to make sure eligible Albertans are receiving consistent access to supports and ensuring those supports will be available for years to come.”
The government has previously come under fire for de-indexing AISH benefits from inflation in the October 2019 budget and changing the dates of payments in March of this year.
The province is facing a record $24-billion deficit as Alberta’s balance sheet is ravaged by low oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.