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Budget shows improved seniors care to be a work in progress

There may not have been any big-ticket items in this year’s federal budget earmarked for seniors health care. But there were encouraging signals just the same.

The new Liberal government acknowledged Canada’s health care system must be strengthened to better meet the needs of patients as the population continues to age, disease patterns shift and technology changes. All these changes will continue to “shift delivery of health care into homes and communities,” according to the budget.

Translated into plain English, that means continued care for seniors through better home and community care is official government policy. And it is a quantum leap from 12 months ago when the previous government refused to recognize health care for anyone as a federal priority, saying it was a provincial and territorial responsibility.

“Slowly but surely Ottawa is taking the lead in renewing Canada’s half-century-old public health care system,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, past-president of the Canadian Medical Association. “Call it a shovel in the ground.”

During last fall’s election campaign, the Liberals promised to negotiate a new Health Accord with the provinces and territories.

The 2016 budget reiterated this commitment and spelled out for the record what Ottawa’s goals are for those “multi-year” negotiations.

They include:
• Better affordability and accessibility of prescription drugs.
• Improved access to home care and mental health services.
• Support for innovation in the delivery of health services.

Seniors will be the major winners in all three of these goals.

“We recognize that these badly-needed improvements are a work in progress, but at least we are on track finally for health care revitalization,” Dr. Simpson said.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau described revitalizing the health care system as “work that is ongoing. We know that Canadians expect us to collaborate (with the provinces and territories).”

In more immediate measures, the government promised consultations with Canadians in the coming months on how to enhance the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). Ottawa began discussions on the CPP with the provinces and territories in December 2015.

The budget formally put the age of eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) back to 65 from 67, as promised this month by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Also planned are amendments to the Old Age Security Act so that elderly couples who are forced to live apart for reasons beyond their control, such as a requirement for long-term care, will receive higher benefits under the GIS.

The government is also looking to develop a Seniors Price Index that would reflect the cost of living faced by seniors. This would be to ensure that those receiving OAS and GIS benefits can keep pace with rising costs of living.

GIS benefits are going up for single seniors. The GIS top-up benefit is proposed to go up to $947 a year for the most vulnerable seniors for July 2016. This enhancement more than doubles the top-up benefit and represents a 10-per-cent increase in maximum GIS benefits.

These changes will cost the federal treasury $670 a year and improve financial security for 900,000 single seniors across Canada.

Ottawa plans to spend $200.7 million over two years, starting in the fiscal year 2016-17, to support construction, repair and adaption of housing for seniors.