01/12/2017 11:00 EST | Updated 01/13/2018 00:12 EST

Special diet payments part of Nova Scotia department's program review:minister

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Community Services minister says her department is considering what to do about special diet allowances as it examines its social assistance programs, although Joanne Bernard made no specific promise of change.

Bernard said part of any decision would include information forwarded by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, which was ordered by a judge on Wednesday to re-examine a complaint alleging discrimination around the diet payments.

She said the special needs program hasn't been revamped since 2001.

"Is it part of everything that we are looking at? Absolutely," she said following Thursday's cabinet meeting.

"When you are looking at a department, at a system that hasn't been tinkered with since 2001, all of these issues are on the table."

Bernard, who wouldn't comment on the judge's ruling, still defended her department, saying it spends a significant portion of its overall benefits budget for special diets — at $8.8 million in 2015-16.

A group of five social assistance recipients and the North End Community Health Centre in Halifax allege the government has discriminated because it has failed to increase the special dietary rates for people with disabilities since 1996, while increasing the basic food allowance recipients receive 11 times over that 20-year period.

"During the time that special needs funding for special diet hasn't gone up, we certainly have seen increases over the years of the food personal allowance," Bernard said. "So we will just wait and see what happens at the human rights commission and we will go from there."

The human rights commission says it will decide whether the case should be sent to a board of inquiry at its next meeting Feb. 22 and 23. The case, if ultimately heard, could have significance for the 9,000 Nova Scotians who get special diet assistance each month.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he was pleased with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruling.

"This is an important case and the thing that it brings to light is the core fact that everybody has to have enough income in order to be able to eat," he said. "The great difficulty in our social assistance system in Nova Scotia is that this is not the case."

In an email, the Department of Community Services said the allowance provided is based on the individual's medical need and is intended to assist with the costs of medically required special diets, not to cover the full cost.

The amounts range from $30 a month to $300 or more a month based on the individual's medical need. Amounts over $150 a month require approval by a supervisor.