Cowichan Valley woman with MS caught in disability limbo

A Valley woman with multiple sclerosis is concerned that she’s having to jump through extra hoops to get assistance from the Duncan office of the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation.

Suzanne Cusson has been dealing with MS for decades but had been managing on her own, even operating her own business, until a few years back, when she found herself forced to apply for benefits in 2012.

Unexpected roadbl o cks appeared, she said.

"I owned a 2010 travel trailer and they said I had to get rid of everything before they’d even consider me for benefits," she said.

She sold her trailer and finally started regular assistance in November 2012 but was not allowed to go onto disability benefits.

Everything had been going smoothly until December 2014, a time that should have been happy for her.

"I gave birth on Dec. 5, 2014. But on Dec. 30 I received a letter stating I needed to bring in all my work information, my T4s, my income information, my bank account dating back six months. So I got as much as I could together. To make a long story short, I was denied benefits in January, and I’ve been fighting this. I have MS, I can’t go to work. I have a newborn. What am I supposed to do?" she asked.

"I was on assistance. But they closed my file in March. I never believed they would cut me off, because I have MS and I have a newborn. But, they cut me off so I asked for a reconsideration."

She finally got an application package in the mail and then had to wait three weeks to see an advocate but finally she got someone to take a second look.

"They finally took my reconsideration request, they looked at it and, on May 14, they said I should never have been deemed ineligible and that my case needed to be re-opened.

"I went over there this morning and [the acting supervisor] said no, that because I re-applied I had to wait for the intake worker to call me. I should never have been deemed ineligible to start with. My file should have been re-opened and I should have been issued cheques for March, April and May."

Cusson said she was concerned because the acting supervisor "was the original guy who told me ‘no’ to disability because I owned too much. I don’t own anything now. It seems personal with him. I don’t understand why. I had to beg, borrow and almost steal to get money to pay my bills. But now he’s saying he doesn’t have to go with what the reconsideration branch says. I have to go with an application process again. That will take six to eight weeks," she said.

The reconsideration branch were trying to short circuit an overly long process but their

effort failed, she said.

"He could have helped me right now. They could have reopened my file, given me my assistance for March, April and May today. I don’t think he should be the one who overrides the reconsideration branch, what his peer did. How could he say no?" Now, Cusson is unsure what the future holds.

"If I have start again, I will. But what do I do about the months I had to borrow money? I’m already behind."

Right now, the only money she has coming in is from her child tax credit, she said.

Cusson has two older children. She receives $75 each in child support for them and then there’s her child tax benefit.

"My oldest daughter is 18. My child tax benefit is $640 so I’ve been living on $790 for the past three months."

The rent of a trailer, Hydro costs and other expenses come to more than that every month, she said.

"If I was a drug-dealing prostitute with a drug or alcohol problem, they’d be helping me but because I was a business owner they don’t understand it," Cusson said.

"They don’t know that because I have MS it takes me 10 times longer to do a simple thing. I was diagnosed when I was 21 years old but they never told me what to expect. The fact that I’m still walking is incredible," she said.

According to the Ministry of Social Development’s communications department, "due to privacy considerations, information on specific cases cannot be provided."

However, the ministry’s policy’s also states that an individual must continue to meet the eligibility requirements in order to remain on income assistance and, "periodically, the ministry will conduct random checks, asking people to submit documents such as bank statements or information on assets."

If an individual is dissatisfied with an eligibility decision they can request reconsideration.

The policy says, "This is conducted by a ministry employee who was not involved in the original decision."

Reconsideration is "a new and final ministry decision on eligibility" but anyone not satisfied with the results of a reconsideration, "may request an appeal by submitting a Notice of Appeal form to the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal within seven business days of the receipt of the reconsideration decision," the policy says.

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