Instant Hansard – April 1, 2010
Special Diet – Questions 1 and 2 (LEAD NDP)
Mr. Michael Prue: My question is to the Premier. Mr. Premier, Connie Harrison is a downtown Toronto resident who is here in the gallery today. Connie is a cancer survivor, and today she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. She barely gets enough money through her ODSP payment of $710 a month. Because of her measly income, she counts on a $72-a-month special diet allowance so she can afford the food she needs to manage her conditions. I’m asking this question on Connie’s behalf: Will he explain to her why his government is about to make her life much harder by scrapping the special diet allowance?
Hon. Dalton McGuinty: I appreciate the question; I really do. I think it’s important for my honourable colleague to understand, as well as those who are receiving the special diet allowance. I’m not an expert when it comes to this particular matter. I’m not a doctor; I have not been trained in medicine. But it sounds to me like this particular individual would continue to benefit under the new nutritional supplement. Our intention is to ensure that those who are in need of special support when it comes to their diet in fact receive that special support. The program as it exists right now is doing more than that, to the point where, when this started off I think it was costing us some $6 million; it’s up to $250 million on an annual basis. They tell us it could rise up to $750 million. That’s three quarters of a billion dollars. We want to make sure we get the program right; we want to make sure those who are entitled to receive this are in fact receiving it.
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Supplementary?
Mr. Michael Prue: Since the McGuinty government announced its intention to replace the special diet allowance, Connie has been living with fear and anxiety. She doesn’t know when her allowance will be terminated or if it will be terminated, and she doesn’t know how she will make ends meet if it is cut. Why is the Premier doing this to Connie and countless other vulnerable Ontarians like her who rely on the special diet allowance to stay healthy? Why haven’t you announced concrete plans on exactly what you are going to do?
Hon. Dalton McGuinty: To the Minister of Community and Social Services.
Hon. Madeleine Meilleur: This is a great question that is being asked by the member from the NDP. Yes, there is a lot of concern out there in the community, but what I can say is that there is a transition period. Nobody will be cut off before the next program is in place, so I want to reassure everyone. This being said, not everyone on the program now will be transferred to the new program, because this new program is a nutritional supplement program but it’s going to be developed in consultation with our partners: the medical community and the Ministry of Health.
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Final supplementary?
Mr. Michael Prue: The minister has already said this will be for severe conditions, and it’s administered by the medical community. You have to get a doctor’s letter to get the supplement today. Connie isn’t alone here today. Kyle Vose is a diabetic living with HIV. He’s here in the audience as well. He is also worried about the cuts. So is Fiona Blair, who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder. Connie, Kyle and Fiona are just three of 170,000 Ontarians who rely on the special diet allowance to deal with their serious medical conditions. I want the minister and/or the Premier to assure all of these Ontarians, each and every one of them, that they will not see a reduction in their benefits as a result of the cancellation of the allowance. Will the minister make that assurance?
Hon. Madeleine Meilleur: As I have explained, this new program will be developed in consultation with our partners in the poverty community and in the medical community, along with the Minister of Health. Will everyone who is the receiving special diet now be receiving it—
(Hon. Madeleine Meilleur)
… our partner in the poverty community and in the medical community, along with the Minister of Health. Will everyone who is receiving the special diet now be receiving it in the future? My answer is no.
Mr. Michael Prue: Mr. Premier, you’ve just heard the minister, so back to the Premier. This government claims the special diet program is not meeting its objectives, but it provides not one iota of evidence: no report, no study, no analysis. Its own expert social assistance review panel says the program shouldn’t be cut, and they’re not due to report until the end of this month.
Why is the government in such a rush to end the special diet allowance before it has been properly evaluated by your own panel?
Hon. Dalton McGuinty: I know that my honourable colleague is aware of the concerns that the auditor has expressed about this government program of ours. We think that we have a responsibility not only to those individuals who are in need of special nutritional support and supplements, but we also have accountability to taxpayers to make sure that it is running as efficiently and effectively as it can.
On page 264 of the 2009 auditor’s report—one passage—he says a doctor “diagnosed celiac disease in 99% of the applications” brought before him, “which we feel is unreasonably high given that the nationwide incidence of this disease is estimated at 1% of the population.” That’s a legitimate concern. That’s just one reason why we feel a sense of responsibility to review the program and to find a better replacement.
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Supplementary?
Mr. Michael Prue: What the government has done is not a review, Mr. Premier. What the government has done is unilaterally cut this program in favour of some unannounced program in the future.
This government is desperate to save money—that’s the real reason it’s cancelling the special diet allowance—not by cutting six- and seven-figure salaries of hospital and government agency executives, but by slashing the benefits to Ontario’s poorest and sickest citizens.
Why is the McGuinty government willing to balance the budget on the backs of struggling people like Connie, Kyle and Fiona, but not on its high-flying Liberal friends and big seven-figure earners?
Hon. Dalton McGuinty: That’s an interesting and exciting way to put it, but obviously I can’t agree.
I think that one of the responsibilities that we have, all of us, is to give expression to Ontarians at their best, and I think at their best they’re kind, caring, considerate and compassionate. They also expect that their government will treat their hard-earned tax dollars respectfully.
What we’re trying to do is strike the balance. We don’t believe that we have struck that balance in the best way possible with the existing program, so we’re going to develop a successor program that strikes that balance, that ensures that through their government, the people of Ontario do lend a hand to those folks who need special help when it comes to their diet.
But at the same time, they expect that we will be responsible when it comes to dealing with their money. That’s what motivates this: We want to better strike that balance.
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Final supplementary.
Mr. Michael Prue: There are words to describe this government’s actions. “Cruel” and “heartless” and “mean” come to mind.
Back in 2007, when this Premier was looking for votes, he said over and over and over again that reducing poverty was his top priority. But three years later, without any consultation, his government is cutting a basic allowance that provides up to 30% of the income for hundreds of thousands of social assistance recipients struggling with medical conditions.
Will the Premier look at the people here today—Connie, Kyle, and Fiona—display some courage and immediately reverse his decision—
The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): I just would like to remind our guests that you are very welcome to observe but not participate in the proceedings.
Mr. Michael Prue: —display some courage and immediately reverse his decision to scrap the special diet allowance?
Hon. Dalton McGuinty: I just want to remind my honourable colleague: I know that for purposes of simplicity, you want to pigeonhole and you want a caricature of the government. They’re either profligate spenders or hard-hearted and mean-spirited.
The fact is that we struggle to get that balance. The fact that we are continuing to move ahead with the Ontario child benefit, a program that wasn’t there before, that will provide $1,310 for our families when it’s fully implemented, notwithstanding difficult economic times, I think, speaks to where our heart is found.
The fact that we’ve found permanent funding for 8,500 more child care spaces speaks to where our heart is.
The fact that we are now determined to find a better program to help people who find themselves in difficult circumstances, who need additional support for their nutritional requirements, speaks again …
(Hon. Dalton McGuinty)
… The fact that we are now determined to find a better program to help people who find themselves in difficult circumstances who need additional support for their nutritional requirements speaks again to where our heart is. But we’ve got to balance that with our responsibility to taxpayers to get this right.