Changes to ODSP are still unfolding

In late November, the Ontario government announced it is changing its definition for people qualifying for disability assistance. They had already announced they were cutting the Liberals’ 3% increase in social assistance to 1.5%.

Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, said the current social assistance system puts users in a “cycle of dependency,” making it difficult for people to find jobs and exit the system. The Ontario government currently spends around $10 billion annually on all social assistance programs, but only 1% of people on social assistance re-enter the workforce in any given month.

The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) has been growing 3.5% annually, faster than the overall population. ODSP currently recognizes that people whose disabilities might not be “severe” may still face serious obstacles to employment and to participation in the community and in daily life. The provincial government wants to redesign and simplify the ODSP by aligning its definition of disability with the federal government’s. (Anyone who currently qualifies for ODSP will be “grandfathered” into the new system.)

The unresolved question in Ontario: Which federal definition will be used? The federal government has two main disability programs: the Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefit (CPP-DB), and the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) which we covered in a recent article. Most observers believe the Ontario government will use the CPP-DB system, while some are speculating that the DTC might be used.

The programs are different, but both are more stringent than ODSP in their definitions of “disability”. (Anyone can apply for the DTC, including those collecting CPP-DB – although it is possible to be approved for one and denied the other.)

  • CPP-DB is for people under the age of 65 who have contributed to CPP, but are unable to work due to injury or illness. The condition must be ‘severe’ and ‘prolonged,’ preventing the person from working at a regular job. The CPP-DB provides a partial replacement of earnings in the event of disability. Every working Canadian pays into the Canada Pension Plan throughout their careers. This program distributes income to recipients.
  • Qualifying for DTC doesn’t depend on ability to work, or age, but on the ability to perform the “basic activities of daily living” (BADL). To qualify, the person must be markedly or significantly restricted in one or two basic daily living activities, or receiving life-sustaining therapy. The impairment must be prolonged, lasting or expected to last at least one year, and be present 90% of the time. This program is a tax credit, and does not distribute income.

The proposed Ontario change would disentitle people who are able to support themselves occasionally, but unable to do so at other times, due to their condition being episodic. More than half of current ODSP recipients fall into this category, so the government could see significant costs savings.

One group most affected will be those living with a mental condition that restricts their ability to work regularly. Your future clients who suffer a head injury or other mental impairment would be subject to the new regime.

Possible problems and unresolved issues

One firm, Bakerlaw in Toronto, believes the proposed changes could be a systemic violation of sections 15 and 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Rob Spencer of London, Ontario, says: “The federal test of law precludes any kind of work. So the fact that they’re moving to that test of law while they’re encouraging more people to seek work, seems like they’re not actually moving to that test of law, or will amend it.”

The province announced the creation of a new Health Spending Account for ODSP recipients, but no details, so it is not clear whether this will replace current ODSP mandatory and discretionary health-related benefits that help people access items like medical transportation, guide dogs, mobility device batteries and repairs, or other healthcare necessities.

The Ontario government sees the 3.5% growth in ODSP as unsustainable. But we live in an society that’s aging, and in which medical science is saving more people from death while recognizing more disabilities (like post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia). These factors explain why more people are turning to ODSP for support, says John Stapleton, who worked in provincial social services for 30 years.

Another question occurs to us: If ODSP has the same standards as a federal program, why keep ODSP at all?

When will we know more?

The government has said that more details about the changes will be available in winter 2019, and that the changes will be implemented over the next 18 months. Strictly speaking, “winter” ends in late March, so the government has given themselves an extension of four months on their initial promise to revise the system within the first 100 days of the new government.