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Health-care providers join the fight against poverty

22 August 2016
Author: Chloe Stanois
Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, has spent years treating patients living on a low income for many illnesses he believes are linked to poverty. In fact, studies have shown that Canadians living in poverty are more likely to suffer from illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental illness, cancer and other chronic conditions than the typical Canadian.

“From a pure health perspective, there is a powerful connection between people’s level of income and their health,” says Dr. Bloch. This connection has led Bloch and others in the health-care sector to conclude that the most effective prescription for many patients on a low income is more income. “I think there is a lot that we can do to reduce the impact of poverty on health but the health-care sector hasn’t known how to address it.”
To help tackle this problem, Prosper Canada, St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team, Flemingdon Health Centre, and the Inner City Family Health Team have partnered to build the Benefits Screening Tool (BST), an online tool to screen individuals for low income and to help them to access benefits they may be eligible for and not receiving. The project is currently in phase two, which involves refining the tool through continued piloting in Toronto and expanding to Winnipeg, developing supports and training, as well as process and impact evaluation. 
“We have been trying to design a tool that is very specifically targeted to the way frontline providers work. We also want to provide our patients that are on a low income with information and resources that are clear, plain language and geared to the needs of people living on a low income,” Bloch says. “The project is moving along really well. From my experience it has opened up a whole new world by connecting the health sector with the financial empowerment work being conducted in the nonprofit and social services sectors."
For Canadians living on low incomes, tax time is an opportunity to apply for federal and provincial tax benefits that can boost their incomes, which Bloch and other health-care workers encourage their patients to do. However, many people do not file their taxes, meaning that they miss out on substantial income available through tax benefits.
There are many reasons why people living on a low income do not file their taxes. “It’s daunting to navigate the system; it requires a high level of understanding and literacy.” Bloch also explains that people are hesitant to go through the process if they haven’t filed their taxes in a number of years. “People think that they will owe a bunch of money to the government and get into debt,” he said. 

Poor health can also prevent people from tax filing. “People often have multiple health barriers, including mental and physical health, that may stop them from comprehending and enduring the process,” Bloch says. 
Bloch believes that there is a longer trajectory around what can be done to reduce the impact of poverty on health. “I see this project expanding nationally. My hope is that this tool will become a national tool that is used broadly.”  
Phase one of the BST project was funded by Intuit and St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation. Prosper Canada has received funding for phase two from Maytree over two years (July 2016-March 2018) to improve, further pilot and expand the use of the BST and evaluate its impact on the ability of patients living on a low income to identify and access income benefits for which they are eligible. 
Learn more about the Benefits Screening Tool project here.

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Chloe Stanois is the Marketing and Communications Officer at Prosper Canada. Chloe is passionate about using storytelling to share Prosper Canada's vision and connect with others. She has a communication studies and sociology degree from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a corporate communications and public relations post-graduate certificate from Centennial College.

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