Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 29, 2004
AISH recipient driven to desperation
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Magdalene Woelcke wouldn't know what she would do if do if one day she stopped getting her Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) cheque. "For me living on the streets is not an option," she says. "I would kill myself first."
Woelcke is one of about 31,500 Albertans currently receiving the monthly benefit, which is her only source of income.
Like many of her friends, Woelcke lives in constant fear that the government will downgrade or even do away with the program. "We have a $4 billion surplus and yet they want to take AISH away from us. I'm very angry."
The Alberta government has already called the program unsustainable because of rising costs. The AISH budget is $394 million a year, a third of it made up by health care benefits for AISH recipients.
The province is currently conducting a mandatory public review of the program with a view to identify ways to renew it.
Woelcke thinks the government should increase the benefit, which barely covers basic living expenses such as rent, utilities and groceries. "My rent has gone up $95 per month in the last five years and AISH hasn't." She currently pays $465 a month for a bachelor suite plus utilities.
On Nov. 17 Woelcke, a former University Hospital physiotherapist and an AISH recipient since 1995, joined about 40 other people at the Catholic Pastoral Centre to discuss the AISH review.
The Edmonton Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Family Life and Health Care Commission of the Edmonton Archdiocese organized the event. Participants included a few AISH recipients as well as their relatives and friends.
Bev Matthiessen, executive director of the Alberta Committee of People with Disabilities (ACCD) and member of the executive of the Alberta Disabilities Forum (ADF), led the two-hour meeting.
People on AISH are Albertans between 18 and 64 who have a permanent disability that severely limits their ability to earn a living and support themselves. More than 90 per cent of them are single with no dependent children. About half have no other sources of income and almost 90 per cent have less than $10,000 in assets.
AISH includes a maximum cash payment of $850 per month and a comprehensive health benefit worth on average $300 per month.
Matthiessen said she didn't want to scare anybody into thinking that the province plans to get rid of the AISH program but she noted that the government has twice called it "unsustainable."
AISH has been raised only 4.9 per cent over the past 10 years while inflation has been close to 30 per cent. This has sunk individuals on AISH "deeper and deeper into poverty" with little hope of improving their quality of life, Matthiessen said. AISH recipients are constantly struggling to make ends meet with many not being able to afford rent, utilities, food or transportation.
The ADF is recommending the government raise the AISH allowance by 26 per cent and to index the benefit to reflect the cost of living, Matthiessen pointed out.
The ADF is also asking the government to increase the allowable earnings for those able to work. Matthiessen said current employment guidelines for AISH recipients are a disincentive to work because they are only allowed to keep the first $200 they earn each month, plus 25 per cent of any amount over $200.
The ADF is recommending AISH recipients be allowed to keep up to $500, plus 50 per cent of any amount over $500 they earn. More than 4,000 people or 13 per cent of people receiving AISH are employed and about 2,300 of them earn more than $200 a month in employment income.
Matthiessen said the majority of AISH recipients are discouraged from seeking increased employment for fear of losing vital medical benefits. Currently, medical benefits are stripped once a small income level is maintained for 10 months.
The ADF is also urging the government to allow parents to set up discretionary trusts for their children with disabilities without risk of them losing their AISH benefits. Currently AISH recipients can have up to $100,000 in assets but no trust in their name. "Parents should be allowed to set aside money for children with disabilities," Matthiessen said.
Woelcke says it is tough to live on $850 a month. After paying for rent, utilities, groceries and car insurance she has little left for recreation and emergencies. But she says AISH is her only income and she wouldn't know what she would do if she stopped getting it.
Woelcke is on AISH because she suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental disorder characterized by episodes of mania and depression and suicidal tendencies. She has had the disorder since she was a teenager.
"At times I'm very exhilarated, I can't sleep and get very, very depressed," she said. Some episodes are so debilitating Woelcke can spend hours alone hiding beside her bed. But she has been doing well lately thanks to her caring parents, her many friends and her strong Mennonite faith.
Despite her illness, Woelcke managed to get a bachelor in physiotherapy and worked in her profession at the University of Alberta Hospital for five years until 1983, when she realized she was too ill to continue to work. Her doctor got her on AISH in 1995. She has been receiving the same allowance for the past nine years and thinks it is time for an increase.
"Up to now I have been able to make it by myself. But I don't know how long that's going to last."
The province's discussion guide to the AISH review is available by phoning 310-4455. It is also available on the web at www.aishreview.gov.ab.ca. Input must be received by Nov. 30.
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