Income support clients will get free Metrobus passes in new pilot project

The province is set to roll out a pilot project that will allow roughly 10,000 people on income support in the metro St. John's area to ride the Metrobus for free.

"Going forward, new income support clients in the region will automatically be mailed a bus pass once their benefits are approved," Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Minister Christopher Mitchelmore said Monday.

Currently, people on income support can only receive a bus pass to attend medical appointments.

That policy has led to red tape in administering the system, tangling up significant resources. Doctors have said they were spending their time on paperwork, not medical work.

Now, everyone on income support will qualify, without restrictions.

"During this pilot, there will be no requirement to verify medical appointments to receive a bus pass, which will reduce the strain on the medical system," Mitchelmore said.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

The bus passes are expected to be available in April. 

"This is all about giving people greater access, removing barriers," Mitchelmore told reporters.

"When people have access to transportation, they will have access to better health-care services. They will also have opportunities for employment and other government services here in the region. This is really about another measure to help people who are most vulnerable in our society."

Follows through on election promise 

The decision follows through on a Liberal election promise from last spring.

At the time, Liberal campaign officials indicated the initiative would cost about $3.7 million a year. 

That number is now down to $2.1 million. Mitchelmore credited the partnership negotiated between the province and St. John's city hall for the lower cost.

Coun. Ian Froude said the city is grateful for the "substantial investment" in families and the transportation system.

"I see a very bright future for public transit in our city, and in our regional partners, Mount Pearl and Paradise," Froude said.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

The passes will be valid for a year, and can still be used even if someone gets a job and moves off income support.

That removes a "disincentive" in the current system, according to Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth.

"You maintain that bus pass for a period of time, so you can get on your feet, get established in the workforce, for example, for a period of time," Pollett said.

'Unintended consequences' of current system

The launch of the new pilot project comes in the wake of complaints by doctors about "unintended consequences" of the existing medical transport program for people on income support.

Under the current regime, only those clients with at least eight medical appointments per month qualify for a bus pass.

Last year, CBC News revealed that policy was creating big problems.

According to internal government briefing materials, patients on income support were scheduling unneeded doctors' appointments to qualify for a Metrobus pass, and ambulances were being called because they didn't have the money to pay for a bus or taxi.

The new pilot project will run for two years. It will then be evaluated to determine what happens from there.

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