Groups Want Input on Ontario's New Nutrition Supplement

August 23, 2010
Laurie Monsebraaten
SOCIAL JUSTICE REPORTER

Health and social advocates say they are still waiting for promised Ontario government consultation on the design of a program to replace the special diet allowance that helps about 165,000 people on social assistance.

Many are worried the new, more restrictive program, announced in last spring's budget, has already been designed - without community input - and may be unveiled as early as next month.

Many of the province's most vulnerable are fearing the worst.

"No one has been consulted as far as we can tell," said Vani Jain of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario who is in contact with more than a dozen groups including patient-support groups, nurse and physician associations and anti-poverty organizations.

"The lack of information or transparency around this is fuelling all sorts of rumours and causing a lot of anxiety among the people we represent. It's awful," she said.

About 80 per cent of the province's estimated 130,000 schizophrenics are too ill to hold full-time jobs and rely on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), or welfare for the disabled, Jain said.

Many also suffer physical health problems including diabetes and high cholesterol due to the heavy medication needed to control their schizophrenia, she added.

Until now, they and others on social assistance have been able to access a special diet allowance of up to $250 a month to help pay extra food costs related to specific medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, high cholesterol and multiple sclerosis.

Kevin Reid, 35, worked for 13 years as an information technology expert until complications due to Tourette's syndrome, a blood clotting disorder and back trouble made it impossible for him to continue and forced him to rely on federal and provincial disability benefits of just $922 a month.

Since his medication severely limits the type of food he can eat, he is grateful for the $129 a month he receives in special diet allowance that helps him pay his higher grocery bills.

He's not sure how he will cope if he loses the allowance.

"My monthly budget for groceries is about $160 to $180," he says. "So losing that money would mean cutting a lot of corners."

But the government says the program's annual costs, which have spiked from $6 million to $221 million since 2003, are unsustainable and could rise to as much as $750 million within five years. When the provincial auditor found evidence of abuse in his December report, the government said it was forced to act.

As a result, the March budget said the welfare-based allowance would be scrapped and replaced with a less-costly nutritional supplement program to be delivered through the health ministry.

In response to community outrage, Premier Dalton McGuinty told the legislature that the program would be developed "in consultation with our partners in the medical community." Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur promised consultation would also include "partners in the poverty community."

A spokesperson for Meilleur said the government is still working on the program and is committed to consultation.

"If the premier has committed to that and Minister Meilleur has committed to that, then I'm sure that's what they intend to do," said Kevin Cooke.

But the groups are still waiting.

"We sent a letter to the minister (of health) in April outlining our concerns," said Michael Cloutier, president of the Canadian Diabetes Association. "But to date the association has had no formal response."

Access to healthy, nutritious food is key to preventing and controlling diabetes, he said in an interview. And for many people on social assistance who can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables, the special diet is essential, he said

Each heart attack caused by diabetes, costs the health care system $18,000, he noted, while each end-stage kidney failure related to diabetes costs $63,000.

Health Practitioners Against Poverty wrote the government last month urging consultation. But that group has heard nothing either.

"People with health problems are the most vulnerable people on social assistance," said Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician at St. Michael's Hospital. "People are going to fall through the cracks."

Kyle Vose, co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition, who has HIV, diabetes and has survived both cancer and a heart attack is also concerned.

"How can the government expect to get the new program right if it doesn't consult with the people who need it?" he asked. "It just doesn't' seem right."

Reproduced from http://www.healthzone.ca/health/newsfeatures/article/851131--groups-want-input-on-ontario-s-new-nutrition-supplement

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