Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate at third reading of Bill C-36. It is an important debate notwithstanding that the parties are supportive of the amendments to the Canada Pension Plan Act and the Old Age Security Act, and some of the provisions of senior security.
Interesting enough, members have spent a fair bit of time talking about seniors, poverty and vulnerability. I will not change that because it is well worth speaking to those. However, I will speak briefly to the intent of Bill C-36.
As we all know, the Canada Pension Plan Act and the Old Age Security Act provide the basis for government sponsored social benefit programs that offer a minimum level of supplementary income to senior citizens, retired or disabled individuals and their dependants following a loss of income. An important point to note is that our seniors population will double over the next 25 years.
When I was first elected in 1993, the seniors' proportion of my constituency was approximately 15%. It is now over 20%. Based on the latest information available, there is no question the senior population is rising. I will be faced with a populace that is very vulnerable and has a significant amount of needs. I have seen it in the level of activity in my riding. Many people in my community have reached retirement age. My community is the most mature community in the city of Mississauga. Many of these people do not live in the dignity in which I believe Canadians would wish them to live.
The bill addresses a couple of things.
With regard to the Canada pension plan, I played an important role with respect to Bill C-2, which was the last time major amendments were made to the Canada Pension Plan Act. Some members may recall that back in 1997 a lot of Canadians said that the Canada pension plan was bankrupt. They believed it would not be there for them in the future and therefore could not depend on it. That is no longer the case.
The government of the day brought in important changes to the Canada Pension Plan Act which, in particular, dealt with the premiums that were received from those who contributed to the Canada pension plan. Rather than loaning those premiums to the provinces at low or no interest, the whole funding of the Canada pension plan was put on an independent basis. The moneys collected were invested in the public marketplace in a fashion that would not disrupt it. A tremendous amount of capital was invested, but it was set up through a special investment board.
As it turns out that plan has done very well. The most recent actuarial evaluation of which I am aware indicates that the plan is on a very sound footing and has been for over 90 years. That is very significant and Canadians should understand the Canada pension plan is there for all of them.
With regard to Bill C-36, there are a couple of amendments of note. The first one has to do with disability benefits. Members will note that currently disability benefits are available after four years of participation in the labour force if individuals are members of the plan. That will be changed to three years.
It should be noted that the Canada pension plan and the old age security, together, pay out over $50 billion a year in support. This is a very large number. It probably makes most people's eyes roll back at the magnitude of it, yet people within our society do not benefit to the extent necessary to ensure they can live in the dignity and the respect to which they should and are entitled.
With regard to the guaranteed income supplement, it currently pays out $6.2 billion a year. Right now roughly 12% of our population is seniors. That figure is expected to double in the next 25 years. We understand the demands an aging society can have on these important programs. Even now there is evidence of that, as we have already heard from members with regard to the guaranteed income supplement. For instance, some 130,000 seniors, who are eligible for those benefits, have not applied and have not received them. Why have we as a country, as parliamentarians, as government not found a way to be in touch with every Canadian, particularly the most vulnerable in our society? I refer to seniors collectively because they have the least opportunities and tools available to correct their situation. They cannot go back to work. They cannot somehow deal with inflation by themselves. Inflation generally eats away any income protection they have against inflation.
For a person is on a fixed income it really is a challenge. Consider the range of needs of seniors, and we have all seen them in our ridings, whether it is pharmacare, or home care, or excessive medical expenses. With our tax credit system now, there is very nominal support from the tax system, such as the medical expense supplement. There are so many different ways. Housing is an extremely important issue, although the bill does not address it. However, we are talking about aspects that impact the lives of seniors in many ways. These changes will address some of those. It is not a short bill, but these significant amendments are very brief.
The second amendment, other than the Canada pension plan, has to do with the disability portion of the Canada pension plan. The disability portion provides disabled Canadians with income supplement. The proposed changes will make it easier for them to qualify for that benefit.
Under the current law, individuals have to be CPP contributors for four of the last six years before the disability makes us unemployable and takes us out of the labour force. The amendment would change that from four years to three years. This would bring another 3,700 people into eligibility for Canada pension plan disability by the year 2010, according to the government estimates. It would also provide additional benefits to a spouse and children.
This is all well and good. These are important changes. The accessibility and the sustainability of these programs would be enhanced by the bill, and I am pleased members are supporting it. However, I want to move even beyond Bill C-36, as other members have, and talk about the broader range of seniors' issues with which the House must be seized.
Back in February 2004, I tabled a series of motions related to seniors' health and well-being.
The first motion was to consider the advisability of a guaranteed annual income for seniors. We have talked about poverty for a long time in this place. Talk is cheap, but how do we get to where we want to go? We have to ask ourselves the rhetorical question. What is the level of poverty that we are prepared to tolerate in Canada? If the answer is none, as some members have suggested, then why does everybody who makes minimum wage automatically live in poverty? Why has the purchasing power of seniors been eroded by inflation? Why have things like GIS not been indexed? It was declining in purchasing power.
If we believe seniors are the most vulnerable, that they are the ones least able to deal with the challenge of financial need for basic necessities, then clearly we should talk about something like a guaranteed annual income.
I proposed another motion to eliminate mandatory retirement. We have seniors who, for whatever reason, were unsuccessful or unlucky during their working careers, or they were unable to have sustained work, or they had a family tragedy, or their financial base for retirement purposes was taken away because someone was very ill. We know many illnesses for which there is no coverage under insurance plans and the tax benefits are not enough to pay for substantial amounts.
My daughter was taking a drug that cost $1,700 per month when she was fighting cancer. It was not covered by insurance or recovered through tax benefits. The money had to be paid, and it was not discretionary. The drug provided the only way for her white cells to recover quickly enough so she could withstand the regimen of chemotherapy.
I also know about seniors' issues. My mother is 82 years old and has a number of prescriptions, like many seniors do. Many of the prescriptions are expensive. Some are covered but not all. Even some of the basic ones, like calcium for bone strength, are not covered. It is hard to believe that these kinds of things can actually happen, but it is endemic in the system related to seniors.
Another motion was about caregiver tax credits. Although our system has caregiver tax credits, family members, usually a son or daughter, and if there is one of each usually the daughter, probably will have to withdraw from the paid labour force to care for the parent. Let us consider that. They withdraw from the labour force, do not earn income, do not participate in the Canada pension plan as fully as they could have and therefore defer the buildup of their own pension benefits. There is a ripple effect when someone has to provide care, for which we know the system does not provide.
Caregiving for those in need in our society, particularly seniors, is generally not available. As a jurisdictional responsibility, it falls on the provinces, but I will never ever use the argument that it is one jurisdiction over another. The issue is seniors. The issue is the need for caregiving for those who are most in need.
I proposed a motion to provide EI benefits for caregivers who withdrew from the paid labour force to care for a family member. Why should they not qualify for EI benefits? They are providing an important service. They are not withdrawing from the paid labour force for a discretionary reason. It is needed and necessary. It is the right thing to do. Why can we not support those who provide care through the EI program?
I also proposed a motion for a refundable medical expense supplement. There is a provision for extraordinary expenses, but I believe it only covers 25% of them. I wanted to double that to 50%. Again, medical expenses are not discretionary. When they are digging into the pockets of fixed income earning seniors, we can understand how we could have a very good debate and argument for doing this.
I had another motion to amend the Canada pension plan to permit those who withdrew from the paid labour force to provide for an agent or infirm member. They are withdrawing. Under CPP, why could it not be deemed to be work? Why can they not pay into CPP during the time they are caring for a loved one, a senior, and continue to earn CPP credits? It makes so much sense to me. We have the tools to work with if we could only get these things on the table in terms of a comprehensive strategy to deal with seniors.
I also wanted to introduce a motion that would take the necessary steps to improve accessibility to home care, to establish meaningful guidelines to ensure that the number of hours of care available are sufficient and to expand home care to include chronic care. Chronic care is not part of the home care model. Chronic care is a different situation. It is a lot more intense and involves a lot more time. It falls through the cracks.
We could work with the provinces to strengthen the pharmacare system and that would ensure all medically necessary drugs were available to seniors without cost? Why is it that we cannot define medically necessary? In the Canada Health Act, medically necessary is not a defined term. I remember talking with Roy Romanow about this one day and asking whether we should do it. He said that if we were to open that up it would really cause some problems. I am not afraid of problems. I would like Mr. Romanow to come here and explain it to parliamentarians. Maybe the health committee should call him and ask him why we should not be talking about medically necessary services, especially as it relates to seniors. Why should we not talk about supporting seniors who need medically necessary drugs?
Many of the tools are here. We could look at working with the provinces to expand and improve accessibility to affordable housing. The Government of Canada has more work to do on the affordable housing file.
I spent five years on the board of the Peel Regional Housing Authority. I know a lot about rent geared to income. I know a lot about subsidized housing and government housing and how important it is. Half the units in my community are seniors' units and the other half are mostly for families led by mothers. The seniors' units are there but in the last report I received from the region of Peel, the wait list can be anywhere from four to seven years, depending on one's rating based on need.
Affordable housing obviously comes in there. This is all part of this theme that Bill C-36 brings to the House about dealing with sustainability of and accessibility to the tools or benefits that seniors need. This is also part of the model.
I have another motion to establish guidelines for the care of the chronically ill and those who require continuous care and for the regulation of the nursing home industry. I am sorry I had to raise that one in Parliament by way of a motion but members may recall that we had gone through a period of time where seniors' abuse in some of the caregiving facilities was an issue. It is an issue that does scream out for guidelines within our caregiving institutions. It is another way in which we can help seniors.
We could also amend the Criminal Code to recognize that taking unfair advantage of a vulnerable senior represents an aggravating factor which warrants stiffer sentences for those convicted of that abuse. Can anyone imagine seniors being taken advantage of by people who recognize their situations and defraud them of money? That is an aggravating circumstance. They are taking advantage of a situation. Our Criminal Code should take that into consideration.
I want to add one last element that has to do with something to which a previous member had spoken, and that is a charter of rights for seniors.
I asked the question earlier about how a charter of rights for seniors would dovetail with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and, as a matter of fact, it does not and it is not intended to. However, it should define the values and the attributes that we want to show in terms of the Canadian value system as it relates to seniors so that every time we introduce legislation in Parliament, we should always look at it with the lens of a seniors' charter that protects their rights and ensures we are not eroding them or attacking them but that we are somehow ensuring benefits go to them.
The seniors' charter is only a lens. Just as we use the gender analysis to ensure women's issues are properly reflected and cared for in legislation, seniors should have the same.