Change in AISH payment dates could create lineups for low income bus passes

Transit systems in Calgary and Edmonton are monitoring at how the province's changes to the payment schedules for Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) and Income Support will affect the city-run offices that sell low-income transit passes. 

AISH and income support recipients have one month to adjust to new payment schedule

A white and blue bus is parked on a street with door open.
Edmonton Transit offers transit users a one-day grace period on an expired bus pass. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Transit systems in Calgary and Edmonton are monitoring at how the province's changes to the payment schedules for Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and Income Support will affect the city-run offices that sell low income transit passes. 

The government is changing the system so that payments are deposited or mailed on the first day of the month starting in March.

Currently, Albertans on AISH and Income Support receive their payments three to four days before the end of the month, giving them a chance to buy their passes in advance.

The government said the change was made to help recipients, but people who receive benefits say moving the date will create problems for them.

Julie Heffel, who uses a walker to get around, said she will now faces long lineups to get her bus pass on the first day of the month. Low-income transit passes can only be purchased in Edmonton at the downtown service centre in Edmonton Tower or at city-owned recreation centres. 

"The lineups for a bus pass are insane," Heffel said. "I try to get it early so I don't have to be 400th in line at the Edmonton Tower ... which means that you wait an hour for a bus pass."

Advocates say AISH recipients are concerned about having to pay for bus fare on the first day of the month to get to a location that sells a pass.

Coun. Aaron Paquette said the city was given no notice about the change.

People with low-income bus passes will be given a one-day grace period, Paquette said. That will allow people can travel on the first day of the month with the previous month's pass.

"Hopefully, that's enough time for them to get their pass," he said. "That's the best we can do at such short notice."

A spokesperson for Edmonton Transit said the city will monitor the situation to see if staffing levels need to be changes to deal with higher demand on the first day of the month. 

Calgary Transit is also reviewing how the payment changes will affect users of low-income transit passes. The passes are only available in Calgary and Edmonton.

In Calgary, low-income monthly passes are available at a limited number of locations including city hall, the Southland Leisure Centre and the Village Square Leisure Centre.

Government denies cut

Income Support recipients say they have seen an additional reduction in their monthly benefits.

On Thursday, the Alberta NDP held a news conference with people who said their payments have been reduced by $97. 

Marie Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert and opposition critic for community and social services, said the amount is a cut to the medical transportation supplement offered to people eligible for the Barriers to Full Employment Program stream of Income Support.

Under the program, a single person living in a private residence receives a basic amount of $866 a month. Recipients are eligible for additional amounts depending on their individual circumstances.

The medical transportation amount covers the cost of a bus pass, taxi or 13 cents a kilometre for travel in a vehicle to appointments. The cost of an adult monthly bus pass in Edmonton is $97.

Renaud said people with medical conditions use the benefit to get to appointments. So the cut, combined with the changes to the payment dates, will be devastating.

"These two erratic policy changes put thousands of families at risk of not being able to find accessible transit, pay the rent or buy their groceries," Renaud said. "This is wrong." 

Milo Gallant has scoliosis and PTSD. He uses transit to get to his medical and therapy appointments. Gallant said he noticed a cut in his income support payment this month, a drop that came without any warning. 

"I still don't have my monthly bus pass because of this," he told the news conference.

'Eligibility requirements have not changed'

Although Gallant and others who reached out to the NDP have noticed a drop in their payments, the government denies there have been any cuts to the program.

"AISH and Income Support recipients who meet eligibility requirements will continue to receive supplementary medical transportation benefits. The eligibility requirements have not changed," said Diane Carter, press secretary to Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney.

"The amount that an individual receives may change on a month-to-month basis as the benefit can vary depending on an individual's needs and assessment." 

Renaud says she has written to Sawhney asking her to reverse both the payment date change and the reduction in transportation supplements.

The government has acknowledged it never formally consulted with AISH recipients about the changes to payment dates.

Government statistics from November show 67,600 people were on AISH and another 61,000 were on the Income Support caseload.