Welfare ministry fails to recognize access problems exist

Welfare ministry fails to recognize access problems exist

June 2, 2015 | Erin Pritchard & Lobat Sadrehashemi | The Vancouver Sun

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BCPIAC filed a complaint to the BC Ombudsperson on May 12, 2015 on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of BC’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

The government’s response was  that the Ministry always “looks at ways to improve welfare services.”

BCPIAC staff lawyers Erin Pritchard and Lobat Sadrehashemi wrote this op-ed for the Vancouver Sun highlighting the government’s refusal to address a problem exists in the first place.

It is difficult to work to improve something when you won’t accept there is even a problem.

We recently filed a complaint to the B.C. ombudsperson on behalf of nine community service agencies across the province, based on evidence that some of B.C.’s most vulnerable people are being denied access to basic welfare services.

Welfare Minister Michelle Stilwell commented within hours to the media that the government always “looks at ways to improve welfare services.”

But the government’s response suggests that, in the immediate term, the government will deny that the problem exists and take no meaningful action to fix it.

People are denied vital income supports because the system is designed in a way that is difficult for many people to access. Welfare services are now primarily delivered through a centralized phone line and over the Internet. The initial application for income assistance is more than 90 screens and must be done online, with no dedicated Ministry services available to assist applicants with its completion. Call centre waiting times are long, and when callers finally get through, the Ministry places limits on the length of the call. Just this week, a caller was told to try again later in the afternoon, as the Ministry’s system was down and staff were unable to locate individual files. Last week, an advocate reported waiting over 80 minutes on hold to get through the phone line.

All this together creates a grim picture for what it is like to have access to services at B.C.’s welfare ministry.

While local ministry offices still exist, face-to-face services have been dramatically reduced, resulting in long lines. Fourteen ministry offices have been closed completely since 2005, and in September, 11 more offices in the North and Interior reduced their hours each day to only 1-4 p.m. Two offices in the Downtown Eastside are only available for drop-in appointments for two hours each day.

All this together creates a grim picture for what it is like to have access to services at B.C.’s welfare ministry.

We filed our complaint because the ministry has built a system that disregards the needs, abilities and resources of income assistance recipients. It makes no sense to require people who often lack reliable access to phones and the Internet to obtain services through a call centre and online. Yet this is exactly what the ministry has done and what it is planning to continue to do.

Stilwell’s quick statement in response to our complaint strains credibility. First, she pointed out her ministry “meets with advocates to resolve issues of concern.” True, but it is at these meetings where advocates have repeatedly complained, in detail, about the barriers their clients face in trying to access ministry services. The government’s failure to act on these complaints is precisely what prompted the nine organizations across the province to file a systemic complaint with the ombudsperson.

Stilwell referred to feedback from clients indicating “a growing interest in services available over the phone or online.” What she omitted is that the last time the ministry solicited feedback on its methods of service, it only conducted its survey online, denying clients a paper copy of the survey even when they specifically asked for one. Despite this obvious design flaw that excluded people without Internet access, the majority of income assistance recipients that were able to complete the online survey still responded they preferred face-to-face services. Despite the clear results favouring face-to-face services, the ministry concluded it should move forward with offering more services online and over the phone.

Stilwell’s statements demonstrate how out of touch the government is both with the needs of the people that it has a legal duty to assist, and with what happens on a daily basis at ministry offices across the province.

Stilwell also claimed that urgent food and shelter needs are addressed within one business day, no matter how clients contact the ministry. This is simply not happening. In our research with advocates across B.C., we heard repeatedly there were delays in providing assistance for people with urgent needs. If you design a system with long waiting times on the phone, lines at offices with limited hours, and offer no help with completing a required initial online application, it should come as no surprise your staff members have difficulty responding to those in crisis.

Stilwell’s statements demonstrate how out of touch the government is both with the needs of the people that it has a legal duty to assist, and with what happens on a daily basis at ministry offices across the province.

Mental health advocate Kris Sutherland was asked at our recent press conference what he would say to Stilwell if he had the opportunity to speak to her face-to-face. Sutherland quickly responded he would ask her to sit at his office for a week and see what his clients experience. We think this would be a great idea. Maybe the government would begin to acknowledge it has a problem, which they need to do before they can fix it.

Erin Pritchard and Lobat Sadrehashemi are staff lawyers with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

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Welfare ministry fails to recognize access problems exist
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