Irene Calls on Government to Automatically Enroll Seniors in GIS

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):  Madam Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to ask the member opposite to answer the question that I asked in the House on December 1, 2011. Unfortunately the question was not answered by the parliamentary secretary at that time. My question was:

An HRSDC study found that, despite being eligible, more than 125,000 seniors are not receiving the old age security benefits they deserve. The government has known this since 2009. It has known about the problems in the program.

Why has the government not acted to ensure that all Canadian seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled?

The answer from the parliamentary secretary did not address my question. Talking points were rattled off about the new horizons program, but there was nothing on why more than 125,000 seniors, who are eligible, were not receiving their benefits.

New Democrats have long argued that we need to automatically enrol seniors who qualify for GIS. Changes should be made to the legislation so Revenue Canada can automatically check for individuals who become eligible for GIS and automatically enrol these individuals in the program.

 The Conservative government is well aware that the OAS and GIS are critical if we hope to keep seniors above the poverty line. In fact, the government's own response to petitions presented in the House, calling on the Conservatives to end seniors' poverty, trumpeted how successful the OAS and GIS had been in reducing the levels of poverty for our seniors.

There are many factors that have been left out of the musings of the government. The truth is that OAS is economically beneficial to all of society. Seniors on OAS spend all of their money in their neighbourhoods. That is money reinvested in our economy, in small businesses that in turn create jobs. Seniors pay taxes. OAS is not a burden on the economy. It is an investment in the economy. Seniors are not the liability the government pretends. They are an asset and they contribute to the well-being of us all.

My question remains. It is a call that government account for the poorest seniors because these seniors are the only ones who will qualify for OAS and, in particular, GIS benefits.

Eligibility for GIS is based on a maximum income, other than OAS, of $15,888 per year for an unattached person over 65 and $20,976 for a married couple. Individuals living just above the income thresholds are ineligible for GIS benefits. This is not a lot of money for living expenses, after rent and bills are paid, particularly for unattached seniors.

There are some seniors struggling to make it on reduced incomes because they are not aware that they qualify for additional benefits. This GIS money can make the difference for someone, give them the opportunity to afford food, medicine or pay their bills. By simply ensuring that seniors are getting the money they qualify for, their quality of life, their dignity is assured.

My question was about rights for the poorest seniors. I will now be very explicit in my question. Will the government automatically check for individuals who become eligible for GIS and automatically enrol these individuals in the program?

Ms. Kellie Leitch (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour, CPC):   Madam Speaker, I am glad to answer the hon. member for London—Fanshawe's question. I am glad she brought up the issue of seniors who do not receive old age security benefits for which they are eligible. This provides me an opportunity to clarify things.

In order to receive OAS pension benefits, Canadian seniors need to apply. It is unfortunate that some people actually do not know this and are suffering unnecessary hardship.

It is very disconcerting to hear that seniors do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled. In such situations it is certainly not because the government is withholding that information.

We reach as many seniors as possible to give them the information about the CPP and OAS, as well as the GIS.

One way is through direct mail. Every year we send over 600,000 applications to Canadians who are not yet receiving their CPP or OAS to encourage them to apply. Recently we mailed over one million statements of CPP contributions, targeted at seniors who were not yet receiving their CPP retirement pensions, in part to remind them that this pension was available to them.

Another way is through public information campaigns and various outreach activities to seniors. Employees of Service Canada's mobile outreach services have delivered hundreds of seminars and appeared at many community events across the country to get the message out about CPP and OAS.

We also work with community organizations that serve seniors. These organizations have been very helpful in educating seniors about their pensions and what pension benefits are available to them.

We collaborate with the Canada Revenue Agency to use tax records to identify seniors who may be eligible for benefits.

The staff in our service centres are trained to ask seniors if they know about these benefits, and our citizen service specialists do more than just give out information; they actually help eligible seniors fill out their application forms. In addition, we are making special efforts to contact seniors who are harder to reach because they may be homeless, live in remote areas, do not speak English or French or have disabilities.

People who are already receiving the GIS may not always know that they have to renew their application each year. However, we have changed the renewal process so that almost all GIS recipients apply only once and have their benefits automatically renewed by filling out their income tax forms. If they do not file their income tax return or complete their application by the deadline, we send them a reminder.

The public pension system is the cornerstone of our financial support from government and of what we provide to Canadians in their later years. It is a solid, sustainable and well-designed program and we are doing our best to see that everyone who is eligible has access to it.

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  Madam Speaker, this is a situation that can be remedied. The maximum benefit that one can receive from OAS and GIS combined is $1,191. That is just over $14,000 a year, and barely enough to cover rent in most cities in this country. This is a travesty and we can afford to fix it. We can also afford to make sure that seniors who qualify for GIS receive their GIS.

The money to support seniors is readily available. We have the money to lift seniors out of poverty in the present, and we have the money to address additional expenses the government will face in the future as our population ages.

Instead of investing in Canada, the Conservatives have chosen to saddle the treasury and Canadians with corporate tax giveaways, billion dollar fighter jets and prisons we do not need.

The government can find people who do not pay their income tax. It can find them right away. Why can it not find the seniors who have not been able to access their GIS? Surely we can do better.