An Edmonton psychiatrist says his patients are upset by comments made last week by Premier Jason Kenney suggesting only people with "severe" disabilities should qualify for benefits under the Assured Income for Severely Handicapped (AISH) program.
"In the past week alone, I've had multiple patients that have come into my office, some of them near tears," Dr. Ernie Boffa said at a news conference held Monday by the Official Opposition NDP.
"They're scared. They're worried that they're going to lose their AISH. These are people that are trying hard to work and just haven't been able to hold a job."
Boffa, lead physician for the Assertive Community Treatment team at the Edmonton Mental Health Clinic, treats people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Most of his patients receive AISH benefits.
Last week, Kenney suggested the province is looking at the criteria used to determine if someone qualifies for AISH because case numbers continue to climb.
"Initially, AISH was a program designed for the severely handicapped, but the population of people has been growing far, far faster than the general population," Kenney said Tuesday
"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?"
Kenney's remarks were followed by tweets from Matt Wolf, his executive director of issues management, which provided more details about the government's direction.
"1000s of ppl with diagnosis for anxiety, ADHD, etc. on lifetime AISH coverage," Wolf tweeted.
"AISH rolls growing at 3 times rate of population growth. Not unrealistic to look at if AISH is truly focused on 'severe handicaps.'"
According to the first-quarter update, the Alberta government is facing a $24.2 billion deficit.
The latest government data available shows there are 69,785 people receiving AISH benefits. Cases went up 5.8 per cent from July 2019 to July 2020.
The main reason for requiring benefits were physical disabilities (44.1 per cent), mental illness (30.4 per cent) and a cognitive disorder (25.4 per cent).
An AISH recipient who qualifies for full benefits receives $1,685 a month. The United Conservative government stopped cost-of-living increases introduced by the previous NDP government last year.
'They don't look ill'
The remarks by Wolf and Kenney alarmed AISH recipients and advocates for people with mental illness. They worry the government will start discriminating against people with invisible disabilities.
"It is not up to Jason Kenney to decide who and who isn't, quote, severely handicapped." NDP Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said.
"AISH applicants and their doctors go through an extensive and exhaustive process, giving the government access to all levels of personal, financial and medical records. There is no way to cheat the system."
Boffa said many of his patients on AISH want to work, but find it hard to hold a job due to their condition. They are often the last to be hired when times are good, and the first to lose their jobs when the economy goes flat, he said.
"They don't look ill," he said. "If you saw them on the street, you may not know that they're unwell."
Boffa said he is concerned the stress of losing AISH benefits could cause some of his patients to become more ill and end up in hospital.
Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney was not available for an interview on Monday.