In November of 2010, the Ontario government announced a review of the province's social assistance system. Health providers took note. After listening to story after story of the challenges faced by our patients who live under a degrading and inadequate welfare regime, many of us held out hope that a huge barrier to better health might be lowered. As family physicians, we see daily the impact of precarious social situations on our patients' health and most starkly in those who struggle to survive on the tiny incomes provided through social assistance.
The report of the Ontario Social Assistance Review Commission, released October 24th, offered some important steps toward health-focused change. Its release was set to spark a badly needed discussion on reform of a broken and anemic system. The surprise resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty changed that --in the two intervening months since the report's release, this debate has been conspicuously absent.
Instead of a vigorous public debate about essential recommendations for broader access to prescription drugs, dental, and other health benefits, instead of a discussion on how an immediate increase in social assistance rates will allow our patients to secure the basic housing and nutritious food they need to stay healthy and instead of a conversation on how changes to the threshold required to qualify for social assistance will ensure our patients avoid extreme destitution before help kicks in, these issues seem to have been swept off the table. The dust is starting to collect on changes with transformational potential -- but we do not feel we can let this report fade away.
The winner of this weekend's Liberal leadership vote, which may have been partly responsible for pushing discussion of social assistance out of the headlines, holds the potential to breathe new life into this badly needed debate. Those vying to be Ontario's next premier should be pushed to comment on this report's recommendations, and demonstrate their commitment to welfare reform and meaningful alliances with people who live in poverty. The leadership candidates have the opportunity to bring this issue to prominence as Ontario's next premier.
Some have used this leadership debate to start address the challenge -- Eric Hoskins, Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello have all used their campaign websites to commit to implementing the report's recommendations. The websites of the remaining candidates remain silent on this issue.
Commissioners Sheikh and Larkin recommend a complete restructuring of over 240 different benefit levels and call on the government to increase the level of respect and trust the system shows for recipients. This province needs to hear more about how our next Premier will create a path forward, ensuring no low-income Ontarian is left behind.
A positive, health-oriented reform to the social assistance system should be a priority of each candidate and the government they aspire to lead. No matter who emerges as Premier, reform to social assistance that improves health and lessens the suffering of our province's most vulnerable deserves the next Premier's political commitment. That commitment can start today.
When you lead Canada's biggest province for nine years you're bound to have some missteps. Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty has had his share of scandals and mistakes. We highlight a few that caused him more headaches than usual. Photo: Ontario Liberal Party
Back in 2004, a relatively new Liberal government under Premier Dalton McGuinty was forced to go back on a campaign promise not to raise taxes and instituted a health premium of between $300-$900. Photo: Alamy
In 2006, the Liberals tried to announce a new $46-billion energy plan that would see renovations of many of Ontario’s power plants. But the plan became a problem for the Liberals when the Globe and Mail revealed that the government tried to exempt their plans from environmental assessments. Photo: Shutterstock
The government’s plans to modernize medical records in the province ran into massive scandal when reports of overspending, waste and possible conflict of interest were revealed at eHealth, the agency responsible for building a new electronic records system. The scandal forced the resignation of Health Minister David Caplan. Photo: Shutterstock
Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals were criticized for laws giving police greater powers to ensure security during the G20 in 2010. The laws were seen by civil rights groups as draconian. Andre Marin, Ontario’s ombudsman also criticized the government calling the laws and police action a massive violation of civil rights. Photo: AP Files/Carolyn Kaster
Ontario’s air ambulance service, Ornge, caused another headache for McGuinty’s Liberals after reports of financial irregularities, cost overruns, huge salaries for managers being kept secret and reports of kickbacks began to emerge in the media. Photo: CP/Globe and Mail
Hobbled by scandal and facing a resurgent Conservatives in the 2011 provincial election, the Liberals cancelled two power plants in the GTA despite the fact it would cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars. Ontario's auditor general estimates those costs could climb to $1.1 billion. Photo: Michelle Siu/CP
Danyaal Raza is a family physician with Centretown Community Health Centre in Ottawa.
Gary Bloch is a family physician with St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
Follow Danyaal Raza on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DanyaalRaza