A third of seniors in B.C. claim MSP (medical service plan) premium assistance but advocates say that number should be closer to 50 per cent.

Half of seniors in the province live on less than $24,000 a year, according to B.C. seniors advocate Isobel MacKenzie.

Individuals who make more than $30,000 a year, and anyone who doesn't apply for assistance, must pay $900 a year in MSP premiums. MSP premium assistance can make a big difference for low-income households, says MacKenzie.

"It's the difference between being able to go out to the seniors centre every week because you have to pay $5 a week for HandyDart. It could mean a new pair of eyeglasses, battery for hearing aids."

MSP premium rates: how it works

The rates listed here apply to those who apply for MSP premium assistance. MSP premium assistance rates are available for people who make $30,000 a year or less.

For example, someone who makes just over $24,000 a year would pay $25.60 a month in MSP premiums if they applied for MSP premium assistance. They would have to pay $75.00 per month if they hadn't applied, according to a spokesperson from the Office of the Seniors Advocate.

MSP premium rates went up by four per cent on January 1, 2016 for those with net incomes above $30,000.

Advocating for a better system

MacKenzie says the government needs to come up with a better system to help seniors access financial assistance for fees and taxes. She points out that incomes for seniors tend to remain the same year to year after retirement.

"Incomes fluctuate in the general population year to year. They don't fluctuate for seniors."

She says awareness is low on subsidies like MSP premium assistance because many people go through life not needing any financial aid at all. For many, that changes when they retire.

"Their income drops. Their income may drop to ... $24,000 a year even. There is not a system in place right now that connects with everybody — that says, check your income."

MacKenzie says she is pushing the federal and provincial governments to create an automated system that would offer seniors MSP premium assistance based on their income tax return.

Seniors with questions about MSP premium assistance can find more information here or call Seniors Advocate B.C. at 1-877- 952-3181.  

To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: MSP subsidies for seniors.