Sask. government cuts health benefits for low-income workers
In a move the Opposition is calling callous and mean-spirited, the Saskatchewan Party government is cutting a health benefits program for the working poor.
The Saskatchewan Workers' Health Benefits Program, introduced last summer by the former NDP government, helps some low-income workers to pay for prescription drugs, eye exams and some chiropractic services.
However, the government says not many people used the program and, in any case, a booming economy should help people get high-paying jobs with benefits.
Opposition New Democrat MLA Andy Iwanchuk said the cut appears to be part of a pattern. First, the government cut the Station 20 West project for low-income people in Saskatoon, then it scrapped a dental sealant program for inner city kids and now it's cutting the health benefits program, he said.
"The government claims it doesn't have anything against the poor. So how does it explain another attack aimed squarely at some of Saskatchewan's most vulnerable workers?" Iwanchuk asked in the legislative assembly.
He accused the government of "mean-spiritedness" and "callousness" at a time when the provincial government is sitting on "a mountain of money" thanks to the booming oil business.
Program unneeded, minister says
However, Health Minister Don McMorris said the program wasn't popular, with only 77 people signing up.
To be eligible, applicants had to have income of $21,000 or less if they were single, $26,000 or less if they were a couple.
Although the program is being discontinued, the people who are currently on it will be covered for the next two years.
Other people can rely on the economy to help them obtain health benefits, McMorris said.
"What I can tell you," he said in reply to Iwanchuk. "For workers around this province, under a new Saskatchewan Party there are jobs available for all … there are high-paying jobs for all."
Social Services Minister Donna Harpauer said it's "ridiculous" for the NDP to suggest the government is not looking out for the poor. It recently increased funding for subsidized bus passes and boosted the employment supplement to help families of low-income workers, she said.
Meanwhile, the government is also still deciding whether it should link the minimum wage to the cost of inflation.
Politicians' salaries go up with the cost of living, but the government hasn't decided whether the same will happen for those who make minimum wage.
The government said Tuesday that Saskatchewan's minimum wage will increase from $8.25 an hour to $8.60 an hour effective May 1. It will go up to $9.25 an hour in 2009. The schedule of changes was announced last fall when the NDP was still in power.
Labour Minister Rob Norris said he's still studying whether future minimum wage increases should be linked to the cost of living. He should have an answer by the end of the year, he said.