Alberta auditor general sharply criticizes aid program for severely handicapped

The bureaucratic mess will make you mad. The human harm could make you weep. Don Braid, Calgary Herald.

Alberta’s auditor general says the government is failing the severely disabled through its income supports program.

Alberta’s auditor general Merwan Saher. Postmedia

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press Calgary Herald November 7, 2016

Edmonton –  “I don’t doubt that the 330 staff administering the program are doing their best, but if you step back and look at the whole, it’s as if the system doesn’t care,” Saher told reporters.

“Operational management of the AISH program is failing. (And) I believe ministerial oversight is failing.”

Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir said he accepts and will implement Saher’s recommendations.

He said his department has already begun to fix the problems and has launched a new online application program that is easier to navigate and understand.

“There was work in progress for a while now,” Sabir told reporters.

“We’ve asked our department to look into these issues and make it more accessible (and) user friendly.”

He said it’s been a challenge given they inherited long-standing problems from the previous Progressive Conservative government.

“(It was) a broken ship,” he said.

Wildrose Human Services critic Angela Pitt said the NDP government needs to take a hard look at its own performance.

“Clearly, after 18 months in power, the NDP has brought in little accountability to ensure those most in need receive funding,” said Pitt.

The AISH program provides living allowances for those who demonstrate their disability impedes them from earning a living.

Applicants submit a form and supporting documents to see if they’re eligible.

Saher’s department reviewed operations earlier this year.

It found the online resources were hard to find, the application form was onerous to fill out. Key information was missing. Questions asked in one form were essentially repeated in others.

There were other findings:

  • staff were not properly trained
  • there was no agreement on the cutoff economic threshold, leading to subjective decisions to accept or reject applications
  • the system to monitor performance was inadequate

Saher said one troubling statistic was that more than 40 per cent of applicants rejected in the pre-screening process were found to be eligible if they fought for the money through the appeals process.

“(That) indicates to me that something is not working properly,” said Saher.

The AISH program provides almost $1 billion a year in benefits each year to more than 50,000 people. The annual operating cost is $33 million.

The main financial benefit is a monthly living allowance up to $1,588, although other benefits are available.

Source Calgary Herald

Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher speaks about his October Report at a news conference in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. Saher has 15 recommendations to government listed in his report. Ian Kucerak Photo Edmonton Sun, QMI Agency

Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher speaks about his October Report at a news conference in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. Saher has 15 recommendations to government listed in his report. Ian Kucerak Photo Edmonton Sun, QMI Agency

Created to relieve misery, AISH now causes its own
Don Braid, Calgary Herald November 8, 2016

The bureaucratic mess will make you mad. The human harm could make you weep.

Alberta’s auditor general has found what thousands of Alberta’s disabled people, and their families, have known for years.

The system called Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) is so cold and distant that it makes handicapped people wait an average of more than 200 days for benefits, and won’t even speed up for the dying.

The auditor general found that some approved palliative care applicants did not get proper application forms, received fewer benefits than they were entitled to, or died before receiving any benefits at all.

To put it in the bleak humour of this tormented world, AISH will even stiff the stiffs.

“We would expect the department (human services) to have a triage process for reviewing applications and expediting palliative and terminal patients,” writes auditor general Merwan Saher.

Really, you think?

Saher reaches an astonishing conclusion: “the department does not know what it needs to change to improve the program.”

The system is such a jumble, with such inadequate reporting and training, that the government is as mystified as AISH applicants.

The problems range from ridiculous delays between numerous stages of approval, to complex forms that handicapped people have trouble dealing with, to rejections because of minor details that could have been resolved at the start.

That only begins to describe the wall handicapped people are forced to climb. But whatever it takes, this system must be reformed and saved.

It pays out nearly $1 billion a year to more than 50,000 Albertans with severe disabilities. AISH is an enduring symbol of Albertans’ dedication to helping the unfortunate, even when politicians darkly suggest it’s open to fraud.

One former premier, Ralph Klein, was almost universally condemned when, during the 2004 election campaign, he griped about being approached by two AISH recipients who were upset by low payments.

“They didn’t look handicapped to me, I’ll tell you that for sure,” he told a Progressive Conservative crowd. “Both had cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and cowboy hats.”

Later he told people at a PC rally they obviously didn’t want to hear about AISH “because you’re normal — severely normal.”

Klein won the election handily in that era of Tory dominance, but he’d heard the backlash. His new government quickly struck an MLA committee to study AISH.

It heard many complaints about low support levels, red tape and obstruction. But disabled people and their families were also grateful, sometimes to the point of tears, for aid that helped them cope.

The committee asked for higher payments and a more streamlined system. In 2012 former Premier Alison Redford raised monthly benefits by $400, to a total of $1,588.

But the call to fix the system stalled out somewhere along the line. And now, AISH is a bureaucratic fiasco.

The father of a disabled adult son sent me a wrenching e-mail after the report came out Monday.

The young man lived with his mother, he said, but “she died, and he was alone. Nobody at AISH ever cared or offered to help. How they managed I will never know. How he survived is a miracle.”

The father took over care of his son and they moved to northern Alberta.

“I assumed there was a vast support network that he had relied upon and could rely on going forward,” he says.

But after many visits to AISH, he found out that his son’s file had been closed and sealed in the south.

“I was more exasperated after each fruitless visit to AISH. The person we saw was never the same when we returned. We presented our case many times and were never offered even basic courtesy.

“We waited for weeks to have inquiries replied to. I lost count of how many doors we knocked on trying to make sense of the AISH maze.”

“One indignity follows the next, one uncaring person transfers you to the next, and the only escape from the AISH hell is to give up.

“I am a person somewhat familiar with bureaucracy. I was healthy, I was determined, and I love my boy.

“I cannot imagine how a person with any form of disability could possibly survive dealing with AISH on his own.”

Created to relieve human misery, AISH now causes too much of its own. The NDP, of all governments, can’t let this stand.

Source Calgary Herald

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald. dbraid@postmedia.com

Also see
Income program for Alberta’s vulnerable broken: auditor general in The Edmonton Journal
AISH too hard to access, Alberta auditor general says in CBC News
Read the complete October report from Alberta’s Auditor General in The Calgary Herald

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