Premier says government will look at eligibility criteria to receive AISH payments

Days after Alberta's minister of community and social services ruled out cuts to Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), the premier says the province will look at how many people are eligible to receive payments under the program.

Comments come days after social services minister ruled out cuts to the program

Premier Jason Kenney speaks to media on Tuesday in Calgary. He indicated that rather than cut AISH payments, the government is looking at eligibility criteria. (CBC)

Days after Alberta's minister of community and social services ruled out cuts to Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), the premier says the province will look at how many people are eligible to receive payments under the program. 

"Initially, AISH was a program designed for the severely handicapped, but the population of people has been growing far, far faster than the general population," Jason Kenney said Tuesday, adding that Alberta has the "most generous" social services benefits in Canada.

He said government departments are looking at ways to find savings and deliver programs more efficiently.

"People as long as they qualify won't be losing benefits."

Concerns about AISH payments have been circulating widely since the Calgary Herald reported last week the UCP government was considering cuts to the program in 2021. CBC News has not independently confirmed that report.

On Saturday, Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said definitively there would be no cuts to AISH, and that a review of the program would focus on service delivery. 

"They are still looking at cuts to the program, but they're looking at cuts through eligibility," said Opposition critic for social services Marie Renaud.

"I would encourage the premier to try and live on what AISH pays."

Trish Bowman, CEO of Inclusion Alberta, said she hopes the review will be transparent and involve community consultation, and will result in improvements to the program. 

"It strikes at the heart of people's sense of security," she said. 

Kathy Marasco, who lives near Chestermere, has a 33-year-old son with autism who receives AISH payments. Marasco said she worries for him and his friends if there were changes to the program.

"If there's any cuts to that, I just don't know where those cuts would come from. Do they give up a place to live or a place to eat nutritious food?" she told CBC News on Saturday.

70,000 Albertans rely on program

The program covers expenses like food and housing for 70,000 Albertans with medical conditions that prevent them from working. They can receive up to $1,685 each month — meaning they live on a maximum of around $20,000 per year. 

In 2018, the median income for a single Albertan was $35,800, and $98,400 for a family, according to Statistics Canada. 

Matt Wolf, the premier's director of issues management, wrote on Twitter that there are thousands of people with anxiety or ADHD diagnoses on AISH, suggesting those illnesses don't meet the definition of "severely handicapped."

"No doubt that there are people with truly terrible conditions that are severe disabilities. And those people need AISH support. But AISH isn't the only program. Other programs exist that are for disabilities that are less than 'severely handicapped,'" he wrote. 

Renaud called those comments alarming.

"Not all disabilities look alike … the AISH process is very strict, is very intrusive, is very long. They go through an extensive assessment to determine the severity, the complexity and the permanence of the disability," she said. "So to suggest that there are currently people on AISH who shouldn't be is absolutely insulting and absurd."

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees called on the province to ensure those who currently receive the benefit continue to do so.

"This government is heartless," said AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola in an emailed statement. "How dare they suggest making AISH more difficult to access for struggling, desperate Albertans."

AISH payments were indexed by the previous NDP government, putting the monthly payments in step with inflation. This came after the province's auditor general found problems with the program, including too many roadblocks that could prevent the most vulnerable from applying, in a 2016 review.

Since the UCP has been in power, more changes have come to the program. Those changes include de-indexing benefits and changing the payment schedule, which caused concern for people who faced penalties from their landlords for late rent payments.

The government also changed the application process so applicants must first prove their medical condition before they can find out if they are eligible for the program. 

With files from Mirna Djukic and Joel Dryden


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