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Seniors’ finances in wake of COVID-19 crisis raises questions

An unprecedented reaction to a health crisis has led to unprecedented levels of government spending, and the resultant debt. Much of the money has been earmarked for those left without a paycheque, struggling businesses and graduating students who would normally be looking for work. That’s all understandable.

There’s been little in the way of direct financial support for seniors, however. That too is understandable given that seniors often rely on pensions rather than wages. That doesn’t mean they’re not taking a financial hit, of course.

For those living on a fixed income, escalating costs mean additional hardship, an issue that’s magnified for a vulnerable segment of the population who are especially cautioned to stay at home: where delivery is available, there’s an added cost. The service charges often come on top of higher regular prices, delivery usually removing the option of shopping the sales, for instance.

Then there’s the issue of investments taking a massive hit during this crisis, threatening the incomes of many retirees.

And there’s the issue of rationing pharmaceuticals, with the province having reduced to one month from three the supply of prescription medicines, which can in effect triple the cost on top of the inconvenience.

In that light,  the federal government  could waive taxes on seniors’ pensions, posits Conestogo resident Gunar Kurmis, a  retiree on a fixed income.

“Seniors that have worked for 40 or 50 years, why can’t they give us a break?” he asks, noting he relies on his savings and investments, which have suffered in the current financial crisis. “Investments have dropped so low, I have to dip into my savings.”

He is one of those seniors who’ve felt the impact of both higher prices and increased dispensing fees due to the rule changes about a one-month supply. For those taking multiple medications, the cost is even higher, he notes.

“The essentials, you can’t get them. Prices are higher, but we get the same pensions. Why not give us a break?”

The federal government has made some provisions for seniors, including reducing by 25 per cent the required minimum withdrawals from Registered Retirement Income Funds (RRIFs). Ottawa is also contributing $9 million through United Way Canada for local organizations to support practical services to Canadian seniors, including  the delivery of groceries, medications, or other needed items, or personal outreach to assess individuals’ needs and connect them to community supports

Likewise, organizations that received funding under the 2019-2020 New Horizons for Seniors Program community-based stream will be able to use their funding to provide immediate and essential services to seniors impacted by COVID-19. That means the likes of supporting the delivery of food and medication to self-isolated seniors at home, and assisting seniors to undertake essential activities, such as visits to the doctor.

Still, there’s much more that could be done, says the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP), an advocacy group with some 320,000 members. The prescription issue has been a particularly hot topic, says chief policy officer Marissa Lennox.

“We have received so many inquiries, complaints, concerns. A lot of seniors are already feeling the hit of COVID-19 on their pocketbook, whether it was in their retirement savings, whether they lost their jobs. It makes for really difficult decisions between having to pay for medications and maybe food.”

In a statement, the organization called on the Queen’s Park to help cover the added costs. While some provinces have moved to waive fees or subsidize them, Ontario is not one of them.

The Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPhA) is also looking for the province to take such steps.

“We understood that a 30-day drug supply would be difficult and pose problems for many patients, said CPhA chair Christine Hrudka in a statement earlier this month. “That’s why we also explicitly stated that patients should not have to endure any additional financial hardships as a result of this measure to protect Canada’s drug supply. To ensure that patients are not unnecessarily burdened by additional dispensing fees or drug plan copayments, CPhA has been calling for governments and private insurers to protect them against any additional out-of-pocket costs resulting from more frequent refilling of chronic medications due to the temporary 30-day supply recommendations.”

Pharmacists and their customers are also facing shortages, she notes.

“We’re also alarmed about an increasing trend in COVID-19 related drug shortages. In the months leading up to March, the government’s mandatory drug shortages website had been listing approximately five new shortages per day. In the past few weeks, that number has risen by about 35 per cent and there are early signals that those shortages have increased more rapidly in the first few weeks of April.”

The province has said it will be moving on the prescription drug file. And the federal government this week announced another $350 million for the likes of increasing volunteer-based home deliveries of groceries and medications and providing transportation services such as driving seniors or persons with disabilities to appointments. Such measures should help in the short-term, but the long-term issues such as pensions and taxes thereon are much more intractable.

There is an opportunity, however, to come out of the crisis with a plan for a more sustainable financial future with the likes of a universal basic income or, at the very least, a plan for regular bumps to CPP – and premiums – to take it from providing an untenable 25 per cent of a worker’s average annual earnings to a more useful and human 70 per cent.

Given that such changes would have to be phased in over a number of years, they’re unlikely to be of much help to current retirees, but it will provide security for Canadians down the line.

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