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Carla Qualtrough, minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, speaks during the second reading of the Canada Disability Benefit Act in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on Sept. 20, 2022 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Some Senators are questioning a government bill setting up a long-promised new disability benefit and are calling for amendments, potentially delaying passage of legislation that recently won unanimous support in the House of Commons.

Bill C-22, the Canada Disability Benefit Act, sailed through a final House of Commons vote this month, with not a single MP opposing the bill.

The bill’s supporters hope it will eventually lead to a new federal benefit that ensures people living with disabilities receive enough income to avoid living in poverty.

But many questions about the bill cannot be easily answered because the legislation leaves out key details – such as the size of payments or eligibility rules – for cabinet decisions after the fact through government regulations.

The bill has received preliminary debate in the Senate and has not yet moved to detailed committee hearings.

Some senators told The Globe and Mail they are getting an earful from interested organizations. Some are urging them to pass the bill as soon as possible while others say amendments are needed to address problems that were overlooked by the House of Commons.

Critical organizations have warned senators that the true winners could be provinces and insurance companies if they are allowed to claw back existing payments when the new federal plan takes effect.

For instance, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance warns there is a “serious hole” with the well-intentioned legislation. The group says the bill must be amended to ensure that when people are receiving benefits under a private policy, such as long-term disability, the new benefit should not lead to a clawback of those benefits.

“Money which the federal government intends to go to impoverished people with disabilities should not end up instead boosting the profits of rich insurance companies,” the group states in a recent letter-writing campaign to senators, which is supported by a discussion paper authored by Toronto lawyer Steven Muller.

Sen. Kim Pate suggested to her colleagues during debate on the bill that amendments are needed to clearly rule out the possibility of clawbacks.

“Without a prohibition on deductions or set-offs by private insurance providers, provinces or territories, targeted beneficiaries of the Canada disability benefit may receive no supplemental benefit at all or may even receive less than they currently do, a situation that would undermine the very purpose of the new federal program,” she said.

In an interview, the senator confirmed she is hoping the Senate will amend the bill and that other senators agree, but added the outcome is not a “foregone conclusion.”

In contrast, other groups, such as Disability Without Poverty, have written to senators saying the bill must move speedily through all steps to royal assent.

“Bill C-22 is a lifeline for many people with disabilities who feel abandoned, who think our government just doesn’t value their lives. There is no more grace time beyond this year to give them hope that there is help coming,” the group wrote.

Sen. Stan Kutcher, a member of the committee that will likely study the bill, said he’s already hearing from groups that either want changes or want the bill passed quickly. He said he hasn’t yet decided what the Senate should do.

“It’s so important to actually hear from the people that are going to be affected. We’ll do our usual deep dive and consider all options,” he said in an interview.

A previous version of the bill was introduced in the last Parliament but it died when the 2021 election was called. When Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough reintroduced the bill in June, 2022, she described it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to correct the long-standing social and economic exclusion faced by people with disabilities and “seriously reduce” poverty.

The government defended the lack of detail in the bill by saying it is guided by the spirit of “nothing without us,” to ensure thorough consultations with the disability community and provinces before plans are finalized in regulation.

In a statement, Ms. Qualtrough’s office said the minister is already working with provinces on a plan to ensure there are no unintended consequences related to existing benefits. The office said the minister has made it clear that the new benefit is not intended to replace existing payments.

“Like the disability community, the minister is hopeful for quick passage of C-22 through the Senate so that the regulatory work can begin,” the statement said. “This being said, the minister is always open to ways to improve the bill.”

The organization representing Canada’s insurance industry said concern over clawbacks could be addressed by amending the bill to define the new payment as a “social benefit,” so that it will not be considered an income stream for the purposes of other benefits.

“Life and health insurers do not want people to be disadvantaged and have worked to highlight this complicated landscape to MPs and look forward to discussing [this] at the Senate,” said Kevin Dorse, assistant vice-president of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, in an e-mail.

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