Days after announcing additional financial relief for seniors struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal minister responsible for seniors wouldn’t confirm Ottawa will move ahead with a planned increase to the Old Age Security (OAS) pension in July — a promise made by the governing Liberals during their campaign for re-election.
In an interview with The West Block’s host Mercedes Stephenson this week, Seniors Minister Deb Schulte said the federal government is “completely committed” to implementing their campaign promises but right now is “completely focused” on helping Canadians through the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are committed to delivering on our promises but right now the pandemic is taking all efforts and energies and that’s where our focus is,” Schulte said.
Last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to implement a 10 per cent increase to the Old Age Security program for seniors once they turn 75, as he courted seniors’ votes.
During the 2019 campaign, the Liberals said the increase — scheduled to take effect in July 2020 — would amount to an extra $729 for most seniors annually and would be indexed to keep up with inflation.
The increase to the OAS as a whole would cost $1.63 billion in 2020-21, rising to $2.56 billion in 2023-24, the party estimated in September.
Asked whether the Liberal government is still on track to fulfill that pledge this summer, Schulte wouldn’t confirm. Instead, she emphasized the recent top-ups announced in April and May for seniors facing additional living costs due to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, such as grocery deliveries and additional dispensing fees at pharmacies due to prescription refill limits.
In April, Schulte said single seniors on low and modest incomes would have received an extra tax-free GST credit of $375, on average, with senior couples receiving more than $500.
Then on May 12, federal officials announced a plan to give seniors eligible for the OAS pension a one-time, tax-free payment of $300. Those also eligible for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) would get an additional $200, the government said.
Officials said they expect this financial relief for seniors to cost $2.5 billion.
The OAS pension is a monthly payment made to eligible seniors who are 65 years old and older. The GIS is a monthly, non-taxable benefit provided to low-income recipients of the OAS pension.
Asked why the OAS and GIS top-ups weren’t announced until mid-May — about two months into a near country-wide shutdown — Schulte said the federal government “saw there was need for more” after the April GST credits were doled out.
“We definitely recognize that seniors are being heavily impacted not only from their health perspective — being more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, the COVID-19 virus — but also with the impacts of the additional costs that they’re facing,” the minister said.
“That’s why we brought forward this announcement this week.”
–With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and The Canadian Press