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BC Liberals' Wheelchair Tax: What's Next?

Seniors in care homes now pay the price for government's balanced budget vow.

Bill Tieleman 11 Jun 2013TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

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Look for more cuts in health and education ministries as Liberals scramble to balance the budget. Wheelchair photo via Shutterstock.

"What is it about being old and infirm that you can be treated with indignity?" -- Independent MLA Vicki Huntington on $25 monthly wheelchair rental fee

The provincial election is over -- now it's time to make elderly disabled people to pay the price for the BC Liberals' promise to balance B.C.'s budget this year.

Starting Sept. 1, both the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities will charge seniors a $25 a month "maintenance" fee for use of a wheelchair in public extended care facilities.

Delta South independent MLA Vicki Huntington uncovered the new fee outlined in a Fraser Health letter to South Delta's Mountain View Manor residents.

It's bad enough that seniors in residential care already pay 80 per cent of their after-tax income just for their accommodation and food.

Now the government wants an additional $300 a year for wheelchairs these seniors obviously need as the only alternative to spending day and night in bed.

It can only come from their comfort fund of $200 a month that now covers personal incidentals like shampoo, Huntington reportedly said.

"The most vulnerable people are being nickeled and dimed," Huntington told me Monday. "Basically everybody in Mountain View is in a wheelchair."

And what's worse about the "maintenance" fee is that nearly all the wheelchairs are manual, hardly needing $300 a year to keep rolling, she said.

"A lot of the wheelchairs were donated by family. People are absolutely infuriated that now they want to charge a maintenance fee," Huntington said. "When you are sent to a residential care facility, you generally lack mobility and need a wheelchair."

Fraser Health claims those unable to pay will have the fee waived.

Chop, chop, chop

It's a nasty surprise you can expect to see many more of in the weeks ahead, as Premier Christy Clark looks for the hundreds of millions needed to meet her campaign pledge of a balanced budget.

Draconian spending cuts will likely be required at the two biggest ministries: health and education.

Of a $44-billion B.C. budget, health takes up $18.4 billion, or 42 per cent, while education costs $12 billion, or 27 per cent.

You can't make significant expenditure reductions while leaving 69 per cent of your total budget untouched.

But why does Clark have to cut at all, given that she promised a balanced budget just a few weeks ago?

Unfortunately for voters, when the Dominion Bond Rating Service said B.C.'s budget is probably headed for a projected deficit of $1.7 billion rather than a small surplus, it became clear that something had to give -- just not before the election.

"In response to softening economic conditions, the province announced additional tax measures and continued spending restraint to deliver a small budgeted surplus of $197 million in 2013-14," the Service wrote. "This translates into a DBRS-adjusted deficit of $1.7 billion, or less than 1 per cent of GDP."

That means B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong has to chop, chop, chop.

So while the health authorities are being painted as the bad guys in the wheelchair story, the reality is they are only fall guys for Clark's election promises.

It's why those who depend on public services, like seniors in wheelchairs, and those staff who deliver health care and education, should be very afraid.

'We're going to see more of it': Huntington

And there's yet another reason to anticipate ugly cuts to the most vulnerable -- the appointment of Energy Minister Bill Bennett to undertake a campaign promise of a "core review" of all government ministries.

The last time that happened was in 2001-2002, after ex-premier Gordon Campbell instituted a massive 25 per cent income tax cut and then discovered it created a $3.2 billion deficit by 2002-2003.

Ministries were ordered to prepare three potential budgets -- with cuts of 20 per cent, 35 per cent or 50 per cent -- and how they would be implemented in order to pay for the tax cuts.

Many services were eliminated and thousands of government employees lost their jobs or had their pay dramatically cut.

Will that happen again? Huntington fears additional cuts like those at Mountain View Manor and less scrutiny of them.

"We are going to see more of it. And it's being done without public discussion," Huntington said.

Her advice to family members and those concerned?

"Bombard MLAs' offices with phone calls, letters and emails and contact the minister of health, [Terry Lake]," Huntington said.

And stay tuned for more bad news.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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