"We absolutely have to avoid making people already living below the poverty line even more vulnerable," said Dr. Gilles Grenier, the head of public health for the Mauricie and Central Quebec region — one of the 17 regional directors who signed a 13-page memorandum directed at the minister responsible for social services, Agnès Maltais.
"First we are doctors," Grenier said. "We have a professional responsibility to talk about facts that may affect the health of the population."
"What will be the effect of applying these measures?" he asked. "If you lower the income of already low-income people, you are going to produce effects on the health of people [which are costly] to the health care system."
Poverty costs health care system $1.7B a year
Grenier and his counterparts cite a 2009 study by Maltais's own ministry that suggests improving the incomes of the poorest Quebecers would save Quebec's health care system $1.7 billion a year.
By contrast, they say, driving more families further into poverty will exacerbate well-documented health risks.
Grenier lists stress, self-esteem, higher rates of diabetes, cardiac disease and cancer, suicidal thoughts and other mental health problems, and for children: low birth weight, delayed development and delayed school-readiness.
"Minister Maltais has said that nobody would fall between the cracks," said Dr. Richard Massé, Montreal's public health director. "I would like to believe that. If indeed no one is driven further into poverty by these measures, then we'd have no problem with them."
Reforms 'misunderstood,' health minister responds
In their memorandum to the minister, the public health directors say current welfare benefits of $604 per month cover only about half the basic needs of a single person living alone and able to work and, at $936 a month, cover about three-quarters of the basic needs of a young two-parent family.
Under the reforms, couples with children under the age of five and adults between the ages of 55 and 57 would lose an additional monthly allowance of $129 now allocated to people in those groups who are able-bodied but temporarily unable to work.
Also, welfare recipients with substance abuse issues would be limited to 183 days of addiction services per year.
Under fire from all sides, Maltais announced yesterday she was tweaking the reforms.
She said she will postpone their implementation from June until next September, bringing in new measures to help anyone over 55 get back to work and promising to announce further assistance for 85,000 of the poorest Quebecers in the months to come.
Maltais did not comment on this latest volley from Quebec's public health directors, however, Health Minister Réjean Hébert said the directors misunderstand the government's objective.
"The goal of my colleague's reform is aimed precisely at getting certain welfare recipients out of poverty by getting them back into the workforce," Hébert said.
Meanwhile, across Quebec, anti-poverty groups held protests to denounce the welfare cuts — at Place Émilie Gamelin in Montreal, in front of the minister's office in Quebec City, in Saguenay, Sherbrooke and Rimouski.