03/15/2012 01:09 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Guaranteed Income Supplement should be automatic, NDP says

Eligible Canadian seniors should get their retirement income top-up automatically, without having to apply for it, NDP MP Laurin Liu said Thursday.

Liu tabled a private member's bill in the House to change the law so seniors eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement would get it without having to apply.

Currently, Canadian seniors 65 years old or over and seniors who have been permanent residents for at least 10 years can apply for Old Age Security and GIS. The amount received depends on income and marital status.

OAS applications are sent when federal government records show somebody has turned 65. But Liu says as many as 135,000 seniors may not be getting the GIS because they don't know to apply for it.

"The main problem that we’re trying to address here is that many people don’t make the initial ... application to receive the guaranteed income supplement," Liu said.

Under her proposed law, "the federal government would have the obligation to take necessary measures to reach possible beneficiaries," she said.

A spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley says the government sends applications to 600,000 Canadians a year when they're due to start receiving Canada Pension Plan or OAS payments.

"We also implemented legislation to enable GIS recipients to apply once and have benefits automatically renewed annually. Last year, 96 per cent of seniors had GIS renewed automatically," Alyson Queen said in an email.

OAS applicants can check a box on their form to say they want to apply for GIS, but there's a separate one-page form they need to fill out to apply.

GIS 'absolutely essential'

NDP seniors critic Irene Mathyssen says OAS is worth about $540 a month, so the supplement is "absolutely essential" for people who aren't getting the Canada Pension Plan.

"Even with the current GIS, the maximum would be about $15,000 in income a year," Mathyssen said. "So, if it’s a senior living in high-rental market, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, that's not a lot of money once you've paid for shelter. Very little left for food and, my goodness, if you have an expensive prescription, you're in great difficulty."

Liu says she's optimistic the bill will make it through Parliament. It's difficult for private member's bills to become law because they get less time for debate.

"It is a position that we are fighting for, but it is important to reach out across the aisle [to the government] and that's what I'll be doing in the next few months as well," Liu said.