On November 30, 2010, the Minister of Community and Social Services, the Honourable Madeleine Meilleur, announced the government’s next steps in welfare reform.
Of immediate note to municipalities, the government announced that it will not go ahead with its 2010 budget decision to eliminate the Special Diet Allowance and replace it with a nutritional supplement program for people with severe medical needs.

The Special Diet Allowance (SDA) is a benefit available to people receiving Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The SDA provides additional assistance - up to $250.00 per month - for people in receipt of OW and ODSP who require a special diet because of a medical condition. To qualify for the SDA, recipients of OW and ODSP must have medical approval of the need for a prescribed diet. Municipalities contribute (in 2009-2010) 20% of the benefit paid to OW recipients.

This is not the first time that the SDA has been reviewed. In 2005 the government passed regulations that specified eligible medical conditions under the SDA. In the past, medical practitioners had the discretion to recommend additional benefits for medical conditions. At the time of this change, all applicants had to reapply to for the SDA.

The government’s original decision communicated in the 2010 budget to replace the SDA was driven by a number of factors including concerns raised by the Auditor General and findings of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

In 2009, the Auditor General recommended greater oversight on compliance with required documentation for the SDA and specifically recommended that the government review the allowance with a “view to limiting its possible abuse.”

In early 2010, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ordered the Ministry of Community and Social Services to pay three lead complainants retroactive and ongoing benefits. The complaint brought forward was that changes to the SDA in 2005 violated the Human Rights Code. This was a significant decision as it resulted in the potential for the review of 200 pending complaints.

Also today, the government announced a major review of social assistance. This review will be headed by the Honourable Frances Lankin, and Dr. Munir Sheikh and will take place over 18 months (January 2011 to June 2012). The review will focus on:

  • recommend ways to improve people’s ability to find and keep jobs, and guarantee security for people who cannot work;
  • examine and determine the effectiveness of social assistance and its role in relation to other parts of Canada’s income security system; and
  • define Ontario’s position regarding the federal government’s responsibility for Ontarians’ income security.
What Does this Mean for Municipalities?

In the 2010 budget, the government had committed to transitioning from the SDA to a nutritional supplement program for recipients of Ontario Works with severe medical needs. The program was to have been transitioned over a number of months and have been administered by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.

While specific details of the transition to a new program were not available at the time, AMO was cautious in assuming this would result in savings to municipalities.

What we do know, is that in 2009 and 2010, the cost of the SDA was approximately $98 million provincially, with municipalities contributing approximately $20 million to this cost.

Today’s government decision may impact municipalities who have removed the SDA costs in their budget planning for 2011. While the upload of Ontario Works benefits continues, municipalities will contribute 14% of the benefit costs in 2011.  In addition, SDA recipients will now be required to reapply for the allowance resulting in an administrative impact on municipal staff. It will be important that the government commit to providing administrative funding.

AMO recognizes the need to ensure that those in need of support because of medical conditions not be unfairly impacted by any provincial policy changes and has asked the government to consult with AMO and municipalities as they undertake changes to the special diet allowance and consider future changes to social assistance in Ontario.

AMO will continue to monitor the government’s progress and work with its members to communicate with the independent commission as it undertakes its review.