As renovation budgets go, it’s pretty big at $85.7 million.
That’s how much Ontario’s Liberal government set aside last year for its “healthy homes” renovation tax credit, launched with great fanfare four years ago to encourage seniors to stay in their homes.
A long list of eligible renovations up to $10,000, such as walk-in bathtubs and non-slip flooring, can earn a tax credit of $1,500 to defray the cost.
But last year, only $14.6 million, or 17 per cent, was spent, according to the government’s latest public accounts figures.
Critics are asking why about $70 million sat idle in a program that seems out of favour when hospitals are laying off nurses, for example, and Ontario’s home-care system is plagued by long waiting lists and uneven services, according to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s annual report in early December.
Given the state of the economy, many people may just not have the cash for renovations.
“It’s tough times for people out there,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“People are having a hard time making ends meet and having that extra money around to make those renovations is probably really difficult for folks.”
The idea behind the program is to help Ontarians age 65 and older pay for modifications to make their homes safer, keeping them out of hospitals and nursing homes and easing pressure on health-care costs eating up almost half the provincial budget.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa defended the program’s 15-per-cent tax credit under the philosophy that “every little bit helps,” but acknowledged it should be reviewed.
“We’ve tried to promote the tax credit to enable those families . . . who have seniors over 65 who could benefit from the renovations on their homes,” he added.
“In the end, a number of people did take advantage of it.”
Progressive Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli (Nipissing) said the program was more of a “feel-good” exercise than a help for families of modest income.
“They way they implemented it, the amount that you had to spend was exorbitant,” he told the Toronto Star.
“And if you had that amount to spend, you’re certainly not worried about the tax credit.”
New Democrat MPP France Gelinas, her party’s health critic, said it can take a year in her Sudbury-area riding for a senior to get an assessment of their home-care needs by a physiotherapist or occupational therapist.
Those assessments help seniors determine what they need to be safer and more comfortable in their homes, from simple things, such as a special chair to sit on in the shower or an elevated toilet seat, to more involved changes such as walk-in showers with grab bars and wider doors or lower countertops to accommodate seniors in wheelchairs.
“The whole process is not as easy as is sounds,” said Gelinas (Nickel Belt).
She noted that personal support workers can’t bathe a senior in his or her own home if it’s too difficult to get someone into a shower or tub.
“Both of you falling in a tub is not going to be helpful.”
When it gets tougher and tougher to manage at home on their own, or in trying to get home-care help with their daily activities, many seniors or their families may just throw in the towel, Gelinas said.
“You’re thinking, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to keep grandpa at home.’ People start to question the wisdom of staying at home.”
Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the government has committed to improving home-care wait times and boosting the $2.5-billion budget for home-care services by $750 million over three years.