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Alberta premier says AISH review should come as ‘no surprise’ amid fiscal crisis

Click to play video 'Alberta looking at AISH qualification criteria angers those receiving assistance' Alberta looking at AISH qualification criteria angers those receiving assistance
Premier Jason Kenney says the Alberta government is looking at the definition of "severely handicapped" when it comes to who qualifies for AISH, or Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped. Tom Vernon has reaction from critics who say the move comes with huge political danger.

Premier Jason Kenney said it should come as “no surprise” to Albertans that a program designed to provide benefits to those with permanent medical issues that prevent them from working is under review, given the province’s current fiscal situation.

Over the weekend, the province’s Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney confirmed the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program is under review. While she said the review will look at ways to “streamline operations,” she maintained there “there will be no cuts to AISH financial benefits.”

Read more: ‘There will be no cuts’: Alberta government defends review of AISH

Kenney was asked about his stance on the review during a news conference Tuesday in Calgary. When asked if he would also make a commitment not to make cuts to the program, he did not respond with a yes or no. The premier said:

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“It should be no surprise that, in the midst of the greatest fiscal crisis since the province went bankrupt in the 1930s, that every department is looking at every possible way to achieve savings.”

“The truth is that we have, by far, the most generous benefits for social services of any province in Canada. I think in the case of AISH, about 40 per cent more generous that other provinces. So I’m not surprised that that department is looking at that.”

Click to play video 'Kenney says government looking at qualification criteria surrounding AISH' Kenney says government looking at qualification criteria surrounding AISH
Kenney says government looking at qualification criteria surrounding AISH

Kenney also said the province has to take a serious look at the number of people who qualify for AISH.

“Initially, AISH was a program designed for the severely handicapped. But the population of people qualifying has been growing far, far faster than the overall population and so they have to look at issues like that — what are the criteria? How do we define severely handicapped in this day and age?

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“People, as long as they qualify, won’t be losing benefits.”

AISH supports nearly 70,000 Albertans with permanent medical issues that prevent them from earning a living with a basic benefit of $1,685 per month, according to the province.

The UCP made some changes to AISH for 2020, when it said it would not be adjusting the AISH benefit amount as costs of living in the province increase, a policy that was brought in by the NDP in 2018.

READ MORE: Questions over austerity and path to balanced budget follow Alberta fiscal update

Trish Bowman with Inclusion Alberta, which advocates on behalf of children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families, worries the premier’s comments could mean people with mental health issues or chronic pain will suffer the most.

“The community is deeply apprehensive. Everyone is on edge,” she said. “Any question around reducing or changing the supports that are available to people is going to be met with tremendous apprehension. These are people who are already making very tough decisions in terms of what they can afford to pay for.”

Click to play video 'AISH recipient feels anxious about program review' AISH recipient feels anxious about program review
AISH recipient feels anxious about program review

Chris Mitchell, who has borderline personality disorder, depression and PTSD, said he relies on the AISH benefit to help meet his needs. He said he’s worried.

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“It scares me. I’m not going to get AISH anymore because I don’t qualify? How much more do I need to qualify?”

“The attacks on the disabled people need to stop, it just needs to stop now,” he said.

The Opposition NDP said the government needs to reassure the 70,000 Albertans who receive the benefit that they will not be cut off.

“Rather than standing up for the most vulnerable, the UCP is treating AISH recipients like numbers on a spreadsheet, without a concern for their lives and well-being. They should be ashamed of themselves for the fear and confusion they are creating,” said community and social critic Marie Renaud in a news release.

The government has not laid out a timeline on if or when changes to the program would be made.

— With files from Allison Bench and Sarah Komadina, Global News.