NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Office of Service Nova Scotia
Heating Assistance Programs
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Public Accounts Committee
Mr. Allan MacMaster, Chairman
Mr. Iain Rankin, Vice-Chairman
Ms. Margaret Miller
Ms. Suzanne Lohnes-Croft
Mr. Brendan Maguire
Mr. Joachim Stroink
Mr. Tim Houston
Hon. Maureen MacDonald
Hon. David Wilson
[Mr. Stephen Gough replaced Ms. Margaret Miller]
Ms. Kim Langille
Legislative Committee Clerk
Mr. Gordon Hebb
Chief Legislative Counsel
Mr. Michael Pickup
Ms. Evangeline Colman-Sadd
Assistant Auditor General
Service Nova Scotia
Ms. Joanne Munro, Chief Executive Officer
Mr. Scott Farmer, Associate Deputy Minister, Program Modernization
Ms. Michelle MacFarlane, Executive Director, Business & Consumer Services
Mr. Rodger Gregg, Acting Director Business Licensing, Business & Consumer Services
Mr. Bernie Meagher, Director, Audit and Enforcement
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2016
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Mr. Allan MacMaster
Mr. Iain Rankin
MR. CHAIRMAN: Good morning everyone, welcome to the Public Accounts Committee. This morning we have the topic of the Heating Assistance Rebate Program, and we have with us, the Office of Service Nova Scotia.
I’d like to remind everyone to place their phones on silent so we don’t have interruptions. We’ll start with introductions, beginning with Mr. Rankin.
[The committee members introduced themselves.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’d now like to give the department a chance for some opening remarks. Ms. Munro, I believe we’ll start with you. Also, if you could introduce your colleagues.
MS. JOANNE MUNRO: I’m Joanne Munro, Chief Executive Officer of Service Nova Scotia. With me are Scott Farmer, Associate Deputy Minister of Service Nova Scotia; Michelle MacFarlane, Executive Director of Business and Consumer Services; Rodger Gregg, Acting Director of Programs and Business Licensing; and Bernie Meagher, Director of Audit and Enforcement.
I thank the committee members for giving us the opportunity to talk about a program that helps thousands of Nova Scotians with the high cost of heating their homes during the cold winter months. I’ll begin my opening remarks with an overview of the Heating Assistance Rebate Program which I will simply refer to as HARP.
HARP is a very popular program, reaching 43,687 individuals and families across the province last year. The department provides a rebate of up to $200 toward home heating costs. The department starts accepting applications around the end of October to the first part of November. The amount of each rebate depends on the applicant’s income or the total income of the household.
Nova Scotians are eligible to receive a home heating rebate if they pay a heating bill at their current address and meet one of the following criteria: they live alone with an income of $27,000 or less; they live with others and have a combined income of $42,000 or less; they receive income assistance from the Department of Community Services; or they receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement from Service Canada.
HARP rebates can help no matter what type of heat someone has in their home: 63 per cent of last year’s recipients used oil, while 31 per cent used electricity, the remaining 6 per cent used other fuel types.
HARP rebates are open to eligible Nova Scotians who own or rent their homes. Not only are we sending out about 44,000 pre-populated forms to people who applied the previous year, HARP applications are also found online by calling our public inquiries line and asking for an application to be mailed out. They are found at all Access Nova Scotia locations, Department of Community Services’ offices, all the MLA offices, and through more than 70 community groups, resource centres and other locations across the province.
The budget for HARP is $11 million. Overall spending for the program has been steady over the past five years and government spent $10.8 million in 2013 and 2014 and $9.4 million last year. This year, as of February 9th, HARP’s spending has reached $7 million and we expect to receive more applications over the course of the winter.
Government recently announced continued funding of the Good Neighbour Energy Fund administered by the Salvation Army. The contribution to the fund is part of the overall HARP budget and government is very pleased with how the Salvation Army has been running the program since 2008. This fund is different from HARP because it offers financial assistance to low-income families to heat their homes in emergency situations. Government’s contribution to the fund for 2016 is up to $800,000. Last winter, 1,757 households received assistance through the fund.
To receive support from the Good Neighbour Energy Fund, an applicant must not have received assistance from the program for the last two years. The eligibility period was three years last year but has been reduced to two to help more low-income families.
Next year it is our intent to make it even more convenient to apply for HARP by offering an online application process. Modernizing the program is part of Service Nova Scotia’s digital strategy to make it easier for Nova Scotians to interact with government. We know that many, if not most, applicants have access to a mobile device. The reality is that using digital means faster and more convenient service for our clients and it is more efficient and cost effective for government.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank MLAs for being excellent ambassadors for HARP. This is a program that all Parties in the House of Assembly have shown tremendous support for. That concludes my remarks and I’d be pleased to take questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. We will start with Mr. Houston.
MR. TIM HOUSTON: You mentioned that the program has an $11 million budget and in your opening comments I was trying to catch the numbers. There were a few useful numbers so I appreciate that, but I think you said that the program reached 43,687 people. I just did some quick math on that. That would be an average of $251 per person to bring me up to $11 million. Can you maybe give us some perspective? If it’s almost 44,000 people, what’s the actual number of applicants because presumably some of those are families?
MS. MUNRO: The 43,687 applicants - that is individuals as well as families, so it’s applications processed. I think it’s important to note that in the $11 million, it also includes the $800,000 fund for GNEF - the Good Neighbour Energy Fund. The $11 million was not fully spent last year. The $9.4 million was spent last year for last fiscal.
MR. HOUSTON: Based on all those numbers, I think you get a number bigger than $11 million. If you take 43,687 - almost 44,000 people - plus the Good Neighbour Energy Fund, plus what wasn’t spent, the numbers just don’t seem to jive there.
Can you tell me how many people receive funding from the program? The most you can get is $200. If I take $11 million and divide it by 44,000, I get up to $251. Do you understand my question?
MS. MUNRO: The $11 million as the base number is not the correct number to use. The correct number would be $9.4 million with 43,687 applicants. Then on top of that, the monies that were spent for Good Neighbour Energy Fund, which were 1,757 applicants.
MR. HOUSTON: What is the average payout to an applicant?
MS. MUNRO: I will defer to my colleague, Mr. Gregg.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Gregg.
MR. RODGER GREGG: It’s up to $200 so it might average to be slightly under $200, but around $200 per rebate, so if you say 44,000 . . .
MR. HOUSTON: Do we have an actual number?
MR. GREGG: It’s 43,687.
MR. HOUSTON: So some payouts would be $100, some would be $200. What is the average payout to applicant?
MR. GREGG: It works out to be around, say, $195,000.
MR. HOUSTON: Maybe that’s a number we can get as we’re chatting here. I’m trying to understand how the money is being paid out; maybe I’ll go at it another way. You said it was $9.4 million last year? How much of that actually went to Nova Scotians and how much went to administration of the fund?
MS. MUNRO: Thank you for the question. We can actually get you the average paid out when you take into account the sliding scale of $200, $150 or $125. We can provide that to the committee.
In answer to your question, $9.4 million was spent out last year for HARP. The administration of the program last year was $613,000.
MR. HOUSTON: Is that included in the $9.4 million?
MS. MUNRO: Yes.
MR. HOUSTON: So $9.4 million was the whole value and $600,000 was administration. And the administration would be people, advertising - what would the administration be?
MS. MUNRO: The administration of $613,000, it is a manual process so the majority of that administration is temporary help to process the applications and that equates to $320,000 - the clerical spend for last year in bringing in those temporary help. The other portions of that are some of the hard costs - postage was $130,000 last year, printing was $32,000 last year for the applications. There was an advertising spend which we have reduced over the course of time, down to $57,000 last year from previous years of $70,000-plus.
MR. HOUSTON: You mentioned the postage was $130,000; I’m just curious about that. I know they come with prepaid envelopes. Do you pay when those envelopes hit the mail or do you pay the prepaid postage on that? There would be a ton of these things that aren’t used at the end of the day. Is all that postage paid?
MS. MUNRO: Yes, it’s prepaid postage. What we do is send out pre-populated applications for the previous applicants from the year before, so there would be 43,000 pre-populated application forms sent out to previous applicants. In that, there is a postage-paid envelope for that applicant to send back their application.
MR. HOUSTON: How many packages would you put together to send out? You mentioned 43,000, but presumably you run some extra, too. How many packages would be prepared?
MS. MUNRO: To follow onto the last question, we are only charged for what is actually mailed. That is the answer to your question.
MR. HOUSTON: The $600,000 cost to administer a $9.4 million program - is that efficient?
MS. MUNRO: From our research in looking at programs to administer such as this, administration between 6 per cent and 12 per cent of the overall budget is in line and considered to be efficient.
MR. HOUSTON: Of the 44,000 people, how many households are there? I’m just unclear, is that actually 44,000 residences or is it 22,000 residences of two people each?
MS. MUNRO: The program is offered to both families and individuals, so the 43,687 is a combination of both individuals and family households. The breakdown of that - I’m looking to my right here - do we have the breakdown of the split between individual applicants and family applicants?
MR. GREGG: It’s roughly a 50/50 split between families and individuals for who receives the rebate. Where we have a bit of a challenge in giving exact numbers, if you apply through social assistance or receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement, you don’t get recorded as having either a family status or an individual status. You would have a Guaranteed Income Supplement status or you would have an income assistance status. It’s around a 50/50 split between the individuals and the households for who receives the rebate.
MR. HOUSTON: I think I’m having a little difficulty articulating my questions this morning. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that one individual person applies and one household applies, that is two applications, but the household has six people living in it. Do we call that seven people or do we call that two?
MR. GREGG: Two rebates that go out.
MR. HOUSTON: So now in terms of the overall use of the program, which sounds like it’s going down, I think we said it was $7 million so far this year versus last year - in total at the end there was $9.4 million. How does that $7 million as of February 7th compare to where it was last year? Is it up or down?
MS. MUNRO: Applications processed and paid today are up approximately 3 per cent from this time last year.
MR. HOUSTON: Did you say it was $9.8 million the year before or $10.8 million in terms of the total budget for the program?
MS. MUNRO: $9.4 million.
MR. HOUSTON: The year before that?
MS. MUNRO: $10.8 million.
MR. HOUSTON: Okay, so $10.8 million and then it went down to $9.4 million and this year you say you’re within 3 per cent of that. What do you make of that, the whole budget not being used? Can you read anything into that?
MS. MUNRO: The budget is set at $11 million, and it is set with a buffer. The buffer is to ensure that we’re able to not turn anybody away, first off, in case there is a very harsh winter - higher heating costs - or if there is a want to change the parameters of the program. So there has been a buffer set and the established budget for the last couple of years has been $11 million.
The fact that it has not been fully used, I think it’s to ensure that there is enough for unexpected use, if you will. At the end of the fiscal year, the dollars that are not used within the HARP budget - and we never know how many applicants we’ll have until the end of the program - are sent back into central government as savings to government. It’s not used for any other purpose within Service Nova Scotia.
MR. HOUSTON: So is there a concern that the $11 million budget will decrease this year?
MS. MUNRO: Can you repeat the question?
MR. HOUSTON: If the budget has been $11 million the last couple of years, but it hasn’t been fully subscribed, is there any reason to be concerned? We’ll have a new budget in the next couple of months presumably. What do you suspect will happen to the budget for this program?
MS. MUNRO: We are in the budget process and I know that the support for the HARP program is there. I do not have any insight as to what is going to happen with the actual overall budget, but our intent for Service Nova Scotia is to reach as many Nova Scotians as we can with the program. I think we all know that there is always the balance of priorities overall in government, but we have had the $11 million. In the past it has been used and from my understanding of history, we’ve never gone over the requested budget authority.
MR. HOUSTON: I think probably when you look at a program like this, you look at if the need is there, and I would say the need is there. So then if it’s not being subscribed, the question becomes, is it not known about, is it the eligibility requirements? The third part would be, is it too difficult to navigate? In this case, the fact that you see it decreasing, whereas my sense from being around the community is that the need would be increasing, I’m wondering why that is. Is it that people don’t know about this or is it that people are not eligible?
When is the last time, to your knowledge, that the eligibility requirements of this program have been changed?
MS. MUNRO: The eligibility of the program has not changed since 2009 when the program was introduced. The thresholds were set based on the low income cut-off parameters, which are established by Statistics Canada in looking at low income families and individuals. We use those as our benchmark in setting those thresholds at $42,000 for families and $27,000 for individuals.
When we look at the thresholds and the actual rebate, it would be nice to increase the thresholds. To give you a sense, if we increase the rebate from $200 to $250, the cost of the program will increase by about $2.3 million. So the parameters and the program is always being looked at to be modernized and to change in line with the other priorities that we have.
MR. HOUSTON: Thank you for that. I guess in between, you could bump up to $225 and pretty much use the budget. We didn’t really get the average but it would be one of the reasons I was wondering about that.
In terms of the eligibility for this program, it hasn’t changed since 2009. Probably somebody is looking at it from time to time to see if there’s scope to change it. We do have in the news recently changes around the Seniors’ Pharmacare Program, which will be income-tested similar to this. Has there been any discussion internally as to how those two things can jibe - did anyone in your department say wait a second, maybe we should be? There might be some synergies to gain there. Is it something that you’ve considered?
MS. MUNRO: At this time there has been no discussion on synergies between those two programs.
MR. HOUSTON: Okay, but is it something that popped into your mind but just hasn’t been fully reviewed yet or it’s a separate program, it’s a separate way to do it?
MS. MUNRO: Our mandate is to focus on the Heating Assistance Rebate Program, and at this point there has not been any discussion around the Pharmacare Program and the HARP.
MR. HOUSTON: Of the 44,000 people who use this program, how many would be considered seniors?
MS. MUNRO: The demographics of the HARP are: 52 per cent are seniors who use this program, 35 per cent are a demographic of 41 to 64 year-olds, and then 10 per cent are 26 to 40 years old.
MR. HOUSTON: If you had somebody come into the program who is a senior and they used the program last year, this year you would prepare a package for them with prepaid postage and send that out to them, they would work through the forms and get it back to you. Is there an opportunity to automate all that? If the changes with Pharmacare proceed and it becomes income-tested, the government would already know if a person is eligible or not. Could they not just put them back in with minimal administration? There’s probably something to piggy-back off that. I’m surprised that you haven’t thought about that yet.
MS. MUNRO: In fact we have partnered with Housing Nova Scotia, as well as energy on Efficiency Nova Scotia with our application forms for the 44,000. We are looking for ways to support other programs through mail-outs and sharing information around programs that make that target market aware of programs within the Housing department for making their homes more accessible, as well as Efficiency Nova Scotia in sharing information so that that program can actually proactively assist our target client group here.
So there is work in collaboration with other departments, but at this point in time there has not been conversation around Pharmacare. The HARP is an efficiency initiative that we use for home heating and the very targeted group for low-income Nova Scotians.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Houston, you have just one minute remaining.
MR. HOUSTON: Maybe I’ll just finish up with asking - the 44,000 people who were in the program this year, how many of those would have been in the program last year? I’m wondering about the level of consistency.
MS. MUNRO: The 44,000 mail-outs - there were 43,647. The new applicants last year were around 6,100 applicants that came in and the remainder were repeat applicants.
To follow on the other question around modernizing the program, I did mention in my opening remarks that we are looking to put the program online and build that out for both our clients, but as well for efficiencies with government, and there will be use through technology in order to do a direct deposit back to the applicant. So our intent is to make it easier and more convenient for all applicants on the go-forward.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will move to Ms. MacDonald.
HON. MAUREEN MACDONALD: Just in a general way, you started in your opening comments by saying it’s a very popular program, but I’m wondering what the department’s view of the program is in terms of how worthwhile a program it is.
MS. MUNRO: I can say that for the department and for myself personally, this is a very worthwhile program and one that helps the most vulnerable in our community. So we look to the program and the review of the program on an ongoing basis on how to improve, make it better. It is a program that I think all Nova Scotians support and certainly MLAs have supported. We really feel that our strategic partners in this program right across the province are hugely important in getting the word out and is our key awareness build for this program - so MLA offices, as well as our community groups and services and the Salvation Army through the GNEF program.
MS. MACDONALD: I note that your opening remarks also indicated that the Good Neighbour Energy Fund program will be topped up to $800,000 this year, which is where it has been in previous years, has it not? I think last year was the only year that it didn’t receive $800,000 as a transfer from this fund. Is that correct?
MS. MUNRO: Last year the transfer was $400,000, and as the program is required they report back on an annual basis as to the money spent, as well as to the reserves that they have on. There was a reserve that was built up and so that was the reason why the $400,000 was sent and not the full $800,000, but the authority is an $800,000 support for the program.
MS. MACDONALD: Which is bringing it back to where it has been 2010-11, 2011-12, 2013-14 and probably beyond that.
So when I look at the funds allocated to the program, the funds spent and the actual number of rebates that have gone out, I see some things that concern me. The funds allocated to the program - let’s say starting in 2010-11, of $14.9 million, $10.5 million were spent and there were 50,100 rebates. In 2011-12, again $14.9 million was allocated, but $11.9 million was spent and there were 51,000 rebates. In 2012-13, the monies allocated went down by $1 million - so $13.1 million was allocated, $11 million was spent - consistent with the previous year - and 48,400 rebates. Then in 2013-14, again $13.1 million allocated, $10.8 million spent - 46,600 rebates. Then last year, the amount allocated was reduced to $11 million from $13.1 million and of that $11 million, only $9.6 million was spent with only 44,000 rebates.
We’re seeing a significant drop in the numbers of people who are receiving the rebate. Can you explain what your analysis tells you for why there is that drop-off?
MS. MUNRO: When we look at the rebates, the first point would be the number of applicants on the cusp of the threshold, so $42,000 and $27,000 and close to that. If there’s a small increase or a minimal increase in their salary, it’s around 5 and 6 per cent who fall off the eligibility criteria. So there’s the back end where we have the 5 to 6 per cent that fall off.
Then coming in at the lower end of the threshold, there have been a number of changes that we’ve seen or that we are looking at. First would be back in 2008, rental properties comprised about 29 per cent of the new housing starts. Fast forward to last year and 80 per cent of new housing starts or new residential home starts were rental properties. We see individuals moving into the rental properties and if they do not pay for their heat, they do not qualify for the program. I think that’s another area where we’re seeing maybe reduced numbers.
Lastly, in the seniors’ population, there is obviously a trend or a demographic where seniors are moving out of their primary homes or downsizing. If they move into a long-term care facility or into a rental property, which seems to be the trend, and they are not paying for heat, that would impact as well the number of people coming in to apply for the program.
I would say that our analysis around the numbers has been steady. There is a decline, but we think part of that is due to some of the inflows and outflows of the demographics. Our job is, though, to help get the word out and use our public awareness programs and initiatives and advertising and maybe change ways that we advertise, to be more effective that way, but to continue to engage our ambassadors for the program.
MS. MACDONALD: Can you tell me about your advertising budget for this program last year? How much was allocated, how much was spent, and how does that relate to advertising in prior years?
MS. MUNRO: On the advertising spend, this program traditionally had been based on print and radio advertising. In 2013 and 2014, the spend was $70,000. We’ve started to move towards more digital advertising and online ads and some print. That brought the advertising spend down to $53,000. This year, our estimate is that we are going to be around $50,000.
I think the move is trying to get away from more expensive advertising and into social media and to digital. So far work with our Facebook and Twitter - the infographics on Twitter received over 12,000 impressions and over 50 retweets. We’re trying to be more effective in our advertising spend. In fact this year, we’ll be able to track the analytics about who has actually applied into the program - the analytics that come back from our digital and social media spend.
So we’re working very hard to get more bang for our buck on the advertising spend, but primarily our pre-populated forms and our stakeholders and investors around the province help us in this regard.
MS. MACDONALD: So advertising has actually been reduced by about $80,000 - is that not the case - from $130,000?
MS. MUNRO: In 2012 the spend was $140,000 and we’re now looking at 2015-16 to be in the neighborhood of a $50,000 estimate for the end of the fiscal year.
MS. MACDONALD: So it is a significant reduction in your advertising spending. You indicated that there is a 3 per cent increase in the number of applicants in the department at this time over last year. My understanding is that as of January 22nd, there were 29,949 applications in the department. That leaves quite a gap between how many rebates were sent out last year if we were to just hit that target of 44,000. Is it the case that you get a big flurry of activity in February and March? Will that gap be filled?
MS. MUNRO: If I could defer for this question to have my colleague, Mr. Gregg, answer the call around the volume or the flow of applications and the timing.
MR. GREGG: As part of our direct advertising, we send out pre-populated application forms to everyone who received the rebate the year before. Those mail-outs will take place just before the program launches. So what we’ll see is an initial influx of applications that come in at the start of the program, and then they will start to taper off as the program continues.
As you say, if we look at - we’re at about 29,000 and as of last week we had 33,600 applications. So we’re looking to be on pace for around 44,000, similar to last year - it’ll slowly peter out. There might be a spike at the end for follow-ups and people trying to make the deadline, but it’s levelling off.
MS. MACDONALD: What is the proportion of first-time applicants versus repeat applicants, of these applications you’re getting?
MR. GREGG: What we track is when the application comes in, we can track to see if it was sent as a pre-pop or if it was sent as a new application. We see about 28 per cent that come in are new applications whereas the remaining 72 would be the pre-populated application forms.
MS. MACDONALD: I have a question about applications that are rejected. What proportion are rejected?
MR. GREGG: Last year it was about 6 per cent.
MS. MACDONALD: How many does that turn out to be?
MR. GREGG: About 2,595.
MS. MACDONALD: And the rejection would be based on what?
MR. GREGG: Primarily it’s income not meeting the income thresholds. There are two pieces you have to prove: you paid for heat or you’d have to meet an income threshold.
MS. MACDONALD: How many of those rejected applications would have been people who would have qualified in a prior year?
MR. GREGG: That’s not information that we track.
MS. MACDONALD: I’m also interested to know a bit more about the Guaranteed Income Supplement and seniors. There are a large number of seniors who receive this rebate - I think as many as 23,500 seniors. Of those, how many are in receipt of the Guaranteed Income Supplement?
MR. GREGG: That’s a difficult question to answer. With our application process, you have to prove you meet the income qualifications. Let’s say you are an individual senior, you make $22,000 a year, you receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement. However you could still just apply and sign off and say you meet the income requirements. There’s a large group that will probably receive the income supplement but we wouldn’t record it because they would just come in as qualified for the income.
MS. MACDONALD: So that’s not something you can provide really detailed analysis on?
MR. GREGG: We couldn’t give an accurate number on how many seniors who receive the program received GIS. It works out to be about, say, maybe 5 per cent of applicants who are recorded as GIS qualified but there would be many others who receive the income supplement, they just already meet the income threshold. So we wouldn’t have that recorded.
MS. MACDONALD: There’s also a small number of recipients of this program who are on income assistance, is there not?
MR. GREGG: Yes, there are.
MS. MACDONALD: Around 4,000?
MR. GREGG: Again that number sounds about right but I could get some specific numbers back to you.
MS. MACDONALD: How closely do you work with the Department of Community Services around the parameters of this program and their requirements?
MR. GREGG: We’re always trying to promote the program and we work with the Department of Community Services. When social assistance cheques go out in December we have a mail-out that promotes the HARP program to all recipients so they can get in contact with us and hopefully send us an application.
MS. MACDONALD: Have there ever been any conversations with Community Services with respect to the rather significant amounts of money they pay annually for overpayments to Nova Scotia Power?
MR. GREGG: No, we have not had those conversations.
MS. MACDONALD: I want to ask a bit about the administration as well. In 2014-15 for Service Nova Scotia, the expenses were $5.2 million - this is the entire office, I take it - lower than estimated and the Heating Assistance Rebate Program was under budget with administrative savings of $3.6 million, I think. Is that accurate? I have a briefing note from the department on this and it just struck me as being rather skewed.
MS. MUNRO: Could you repeat the numbers one more time for me?
MS. MACDONALD: In 2014-15 Service Nova Scotia’s expenses were $5.2 million, or 5.1 per cent lower than estimated, due to underspending in the Heating Assistance Rebate Program of $1.6 million and general operating and salary savings of $3.6 million.
MS. MUNRO: The $9.6 million, the number that’s in my head is really about the authority of the budget and what was actually spent. On the administrative costs, as previously mentioned, that $613,000, the majority of that - 50-plus per cent - is to bring in temporary staff to manually process these applications and get them into the database. Then there’s the hard cost of postage, print and so on and so forth.
The move to try to provide convenience for our client base is important but there is a real cost saving to those annual administrative costs that we are going to want to get at. I can elaborate on that for you. I’m not clear where that other reconciliation is coming from and certainly would be happy to look into it for you but I can’t recollect that off the top of my head. The intent for the modernizing of the program and getting online is to be more convenient and, as well, to save money. In fact, to stand up an online system is around $60,000 and if we had just a 25 per cent uptake, the annual saving is $90,000. The larger the uptake, the reduced amount of administrative costs - so at 40 per cent you’re looking at about $160,000 annually for savings on the administration of this program. So here is a reason to go forward to provide a more convenient online application process and trim back on the processing manually of this program.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. MacDonald, you just have a few seconds remaining.
MS. MACDONALD: I will pass my seconds to my colleagues.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, we’ll begin with Mr. Rankin with the Liberal caucus.
MR. IAIN RANKIN: That’s an interesting discussion around the administration and the $613,000. Has that amount stayed roughly the same over the last few years - in terms of the actual value in itself or the percentage of the total package that you’re spending on administration?
MS. MUNRO: The costs to administer this program have remained very stable over the last number of years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve it by modernizing the program.
MR. RANKIN: I’m just wondering if you can quantify any other efficiency gains that you have been able to achieve, particularly over the last couple of years in terms of application processing and how fast the applications are turned around and things like that.
MS. MUNRO: The team is always looking to make the program better, make it more efficient. In fact, there were a number of around 65 per cent, if I recall - say, it touched more than once, so call-backs and follow-ups because the processes were not complete. So in that analysis and look-see, it was discovered that there were two signatures required because of a CRA requirement, and the team worked with CRA to develop the new program going forward so only one signature was required. In that efficiency move, we reduced the number of second touches down to - I think it was well below 11 per cent. So it was a significant improvement on how many times there was back and forth on a particular file.
As well, a lot of people go to MLA offices to apply. We’re able to then receive faxed application forms where previously that was not the case so that has helped as well, although we want to get away from faxes. So there have been a number of efficiencies built over time with the process we have, which is manual, so not the best.
MR. RANKIN: I’m just curious - with each applicant, do they have to reapply every year no matter what or is there any case possible for automating the ones that we are pretty positive that they’re going to be remaining in that income threshold? I’m just thinking of efficiencies of administering the program.
MS. MUNRO: There is no way at this time to just put an automatic process in for applicants. It is unfortunately done every year to make sure that the criteria has been met for the applicant to be approved.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll move to Mr. Stroink.
MR. JOACHIM STROINK: Thank you for your presentation. I just want to touch base on the seniors. Just for the record, you said 52 per cent, but I think it’s 54 per cent of seniors actually use it. I just want that to be noted in the record.
With that, I kind of want to touch on the seniors. As the seniors seem to be the largest group of people using this rebate, how is the department reaching out to those people better than the mail-outs? Most of those seniors are probably not computer savvy, and I’m assuming that demographic is just going to grow as the seniors increase here in Nova Scotia. What kinds of mechanisms are you using to ensure that seniors are reached and touched, to know that this program is out there?
MS. MUNRO: Our research actually shows that one of the fast and growing demographics for using tablets is the senior population so, in fact, to say that we might not be able to reach them digitally is something I think that we can continue and need to research, to understand our user group. So we will always be doing that and we’ll be doing the user research.
Over and above our strategy to move into digital and to communicate through social media and so forth, we do have the traditional methods for advertising. Last year we actually used our digital screens at Tim Hortons as well to talk to the client base at Tim Hortons - seniors do enjoy a cup of coffee there. We used our Access Centres’ digital screens as well to communicate. I think the most important and effective use has been the pre-populated forms and going to MLA offices where there are conversations that go on around how they can apply and how they can help.
We also advertised in Senior Living and worked with the Department of Seniors to get the word out around the Heating Assistance Rebate Program as well. Our community groups that are hugely involved in our senior population are very key to communicating the HARP and those who would be eligible. It’s very important to not leave anybody behind so we’re committed to that.
MR. STROINK: Thank you for your answer. I guess my other follow-up question to that is, have you seen the numbers grow in the seniors’ program in the last few years? Is it a number that continues to increase? The other demographics you mentioned, are they decreasing or increasing as well?
MS. MUNRO: I’d ask my colleague Mr. Gregg to talk to the demographic trends that we’re seeing in the HARP.
MR. GREGG: Year over year it may vary by 1 per cent to 3 per cent but it’s pretty steady for those demographics.
MR. STROINK: Increase, a steady increase?
MR. GREGG: They could go up or down but this is around the range that it’s in. We haven’t seen a trend up or down in any . . .
MR. STROINK: Okay, it’s just kind of flat. Great, thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Stroink. Mr. Gough.
MR. STEPHEN GOUGH: I have nothing right now, thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, Ms. Lohnes-Croft.
MS. SUZANNE LOHNES-CROFT: I have many constituents in my constituency - it’s rural Nova Scotia - who have many reasons, basically income, why they cannot access technology. Many don’t even have chequing accounts, so can you explain how they would go through the process of getting this rebate?
MS. MUNRO: Thank you for the question. As I’ve mentioned, we won’t leave anybody behind, so for those families and individuals who do not have access, the paper-based program, the manual program will remain in place where they can access their application through Access Centres, the MLA office, the Salvation Army, the other community groups that are involved in their local communities. The cheque will be issued and mailed to them, as is the case now. We’ll ensure that for those individuals who don’t have access that the program will stay as is, which has been the case since 2009.
MS. LOHNES-CROFT: Okay, because as you go more into the digital era, I have concerns that way. Also, we have fairly high illiteracy rates in Lunenburg County. We found ourselves in our constituency office often having to fill out applications on behalf of constituents. Is that service provided at Access Nova Scotia where people who are functionally illiterate can go in and there is someone there to help them with their application?
MS. MUNRO: Our teams within Service Nova Scotia and Access Nova Scotia are there to help. There’s no one who is assigned on the counter to fill out application forms for HARP but if and when there’s an ability to help, we certainly would.
MS. LOHNES-CROFT: Okay, because sometimes it’s a hard issue to detect and often people will say, I’ll come back, and they don’t come back because there is a literacy issue there. Maybe that’s an awareness that staff need to have. I’m sure there are pockets throughout Nova Scotia where literacy is challenging for applicants and although they can sign their signature, they can’t always comprehend what the forms are asking them. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Ms. Lohnes-Croft. We’ll move to Mr. Maguire.
MR. BRENDAN MAGUIRE: Thanks for coming in today. I wanted to talk about the reduction in advertising expenses. You mentioned Twitter and other forms of social media - is your department moving into some of the more non-traditional forms of advertising - ones that may not be as expensive as paper and mail-outs and things like that? If so, are you tracking - like with Twitter and social media - the amount of people that this is actually reaching, and do you have any numbers around that?
MS. MUNRO: We’ve just started our tracking this year so yes, the Google analytics are all part of this particular program. So we are wanting to move into lower cost advertising to get larger reach and more targeted reach on the analytics. At this point in time, I don’t have any of the detailed analytics to date with me, but I’m certainly happy to provide what we do have at this point in time to the committee.
The analysis work will happen at the end obviously if the HARP and application period - so that will be something that we look at in earnest to find out how we can improve and make it better for the years to come.
MR. MAGUIRE: What form of non-traditional media - I will just use that term - or advertising are you using right now? Are you using Facebook? I think the last I read, the average user of Facebook is over 50 years old now so Facebook is becoming a means for the previous generation with an aging population. Obviously this is an important media outlet.
MS. MUNRO: I would agree with you - it’s very important. I would like to defer to my colleague, Mr. Gregg, to comment further on our go-forward on advertising and if there is any information that he has top of mind to share with you.
MR. GREGG: We focused on different types of advertising so we’ve looked at Twitter. We’ve got a fairly active Twitter account. We’ve looked this year at building infographics that provide a picture and a visualization. When we spread that out through Twitter at no cost to us, we’ve seen over 10,000 views of that tweet that goes out as an infographic so we’ve seen a lot of success through that.
We’ve also focused on advertisements through Facebook; we’ve got a lot of good buzz from that as well. By the end of the year we’ll be able to have some analytics done on the advertising to get some specific numbers on the reach, but we know some of the immediate feedback from Twitter has been quite strong.
MR. MAGUIRE: Just to stay on this topic for a second, what is the average cost of, say, advertising on Facebook compared to advertising in, say, one of the local media - one of the traditional newspapers or something like that? Is it about the same? Is it more? Is it less?
MR. GREGG: We’ve found it to be a lot cheaper and we can be more targeted as well. We had originally focused on a large radio and newspaper campaign and previous advertisements. That can get very expensive and you don’t know if you’re always hitting your target audience, whereas when we can zero in on social media and online, we can target our demographic a lot better.
MR. MAGUIRE: So you’re able to target those that will more than likely apply to it the most. Would you say this is one of the reasons we’ve seen a little dip in the advertising costs - because you’re using more effective and cost-efficient advertising methods?
MR. GREGG: Yes, we’ve tried to be a little more strategic with how we spend our money and more targeted.
MR. MAGUIRE: And you’ll have numbers on that to see how many people this has impacted and how many people this has actually gotten out to?
MR. GREGG: Yes.
MR. MAGUIRE: Have you done any studies or have you looked to neighbouring provinces in regard to their HARP programs? Let’s use New Brunswick, for example. Have you done any comparison to see where we rate compared to New Brunswick?
MS. MUNRO: We always have conversations where we look at jurisdictions when we’re looking at our jurisdictional review. In fact, we do have some information on some of the other close-by jurisdictions. If I could defer to Mr. Farmer to elaborate a bit further on that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Farmer.
MR. SCOTT FARMER: There is a program in place in the Province of New Brunswick and there is a program in place in Newfoundland and Labrador as well when we look at our Atlantic colleagues. The Newfoundland and Labrador program is available to families with incomes up to $40,000, so a similar cut-off to what we have in Nova Scotia, and provides assistance of $250. It provides assistance of $500 to households in coastal Labrador so there’s a slightly different parameter, based on geography. In fact, we’ve worked with Newfoundland and Labrador to understand the efficiencies they’ve introduced into their program through electronic funds transfer, they’ve worked with CRA and if you get your refund deposited directly into your bank account today, from CRA, the same thing happens with the program in Newfoundland and Labrador. We’re looking to mirror that in Nova Scotia for the next program that will begin in the Fall of this year. We’ve worked closely with them on that and hope to benefit from the same process they have in place.
There’s also a program in place in New Brunswick, it’s called the Home Energy Assistance Program. It provides a rebate of $100 for families with incomes up to $28,000, so it’s slightly less than the Nova Scotia program in terms of both the benefit and the parameters for qualification.
MR. MAGUIRE: I guess it’s safe to say that we’re at the top and compared to New Brunswick, leading the way when it comes to these types of programs?
MR. FARMER: I would say that when you look at the numbers, it’s a more generous program than the program that’s in place in New Brunswick and comparable to the program that’s in place in Newfoundland and Labrador.
MR. MAGUIRE: We talked about the decline in applications and enrolment, what are some of the factors besides income levels increasing and things like that, that lead to more or less people enrolling in this program? Obviously this is a program that’s very important and has had a large impact on people in my riding. We’ve seen a lot of people come forward to the MLA’s office, and the Salvation Army being across the street from me, we’ve seen a lot of people take advantage of this program. What are some of the factors that would lead to a decline in enrolment in this program?
MS. MUNRO: I think you have to look at demographic trends where seniors are downsizing out of their homes and moving into rental properties. If they don’t pay for their heating bill then they don’t quality. As well, the movement in the new builds market, 80 per cent of last year’s new builds were rental properties so if there’s a demographic shift from owning your own home to renting, that will have an impact as well to the numbers that would qualify or apply for the program. Those are two big things.
I guess the other one is depending on where they are in their income. A modest increase in people’s salaries could tip them over that threshold. Those are three areas that could impact the number of applications that we receive.
MR. MAGUIRE: Okay, I’ll pass it on.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That concludes questions from the Liberal caucus. We’ll move to Mr. Houston for 14 minutes.
MR. HOUSTON: Lots of discussion about advertising and I’m just wondering, are you reaching the people you should be reaching? I ask that question in the context of knowing that government has a lot of data on demographics and incomes and all these heat sources and all this type of stuff, that the information that would be at the hands of government would be quite a bit. When you see 44,000 people accessing this program, did you have an expectation - should it have been higher? Should it have been less? Do you feel like you’re reaching the people you should be?
MS. MUNRO: Thank you for the question. I think fundamentally the grassroots nature of this program is very key and making sure that we use our community groups - the Salvation Army, the MLA offices, and so on and so forth. You can imagine that in some cases people might be hesitant to move forward but if they’re working with the Salvation Army or one of the community groups, they might be more apt to have that information come through those kinds of face-to-face conversations.
On the advertising and awareness piece, our goal is to build awareness and to reach as many Nova Scotians that are . . .
MR. HOUSTON: I guess that’s all you’re speaking about, how you reach people?
MS. MUNRO: Yes.
MR. HOUSTON: I’m asking a different question - the “how” could have a bunch of different roads to get there, but I’m asking you, do you feel like you’re reaching the right people?
MS. MUNRO: The advertising spend this year - we’re moving to a much more strategic – surgical, if you want - targeted advertising campaign. We will have the analytics at the end of this particular campaign and program, and do the analysis and the work to ensure that we are reaching the specific target group that we intend. I would say that the 44,000 - we’ve seen some declines, but that will prove out in the analytics at the end of this time around. From previous years, the print and radio advertising, you can’t quite get to the same level of analytics. So the move to social and digital will help us in that regard.
MR. HOUSTON: Again, that’s the how. The question I’m asking is a lot higher than that. How many people would you expect to apply, knowing what the government knows about the make-up of the population? Then I’m asking you to compare that to how many did apply. In other words, if you had an expectation that we should be reaching 60,000 people but we’re only reaching 44,000, then you would re-tinker and advertise differently and promote differently. But if you had an expectation that we’re probably going to reach - there are probably about 30,000 to 40,000 and we’re reaching 44,000, that’s a different scenario. So I’m asking you - knowing what you know, knowing what the government knows - how many people should we be reaching, and the question very specifically is, are you reaching the people you should be?
MS. MUNRO: I don’t have the exact number at my fingertips. This is a program that is focused on people who pay for heat. I would defer to my colleague, Mr. Gregg, on any other analysis that he might have in regard to the potential numbers that could apply.
MR. GREGG: Just to clarify, when you say the right people, I guess it’s qualified people - people we can give a rebate to. The issue with HARP, the challenge we have is we can go to Statistics Canada and we can find out data for people who earn a certain amount of income. We could go and find general data for Nova Scotia from Statistics Canada to find out the percentage that heat with oil, but where we have a hard time is finding a percentage of qualified people who would then meet income and pay for heat. That’s the number that we’re always trying to work with, to figure that out, but there’s no sort of clear number that can break that down for us.
So we’re always looking at - okay, what have our trends been, what has been happening over previous years? I think a major piece is sending that pre-populated application form back to everyone who received the rebate . . .
MR. HOUSTON: But could you not go to - how many of the 44,000 people would you say would be in the Community Services database that the province maintains?
MR. GREGG: How many of those 44,000 would be in . . .
MR. HOUSTON: Yes. I see on the form it says if you get income assistance from the Department of Community Services, no additional proof is required. So you must have some sense as to how many of your constituents - how many of the 44,000 people are also accessing Community Services?
MR. GREGG: Just to clarify, that was to prove income. They would still have to provide proof they paid for heat, but it’s about 12 per cent that would be in the system from income assistance, but they would still have to prove that they paid for heat as well to qualify for the program.
MR. HOUSTON: Again, I’m sure that information would be known to Community Services as well. So I’m just trying to get a sense of how you guys feel you’re doing in reaching the proper audience. It sounds like that’s not really an angle that you guys have looked at it from - would it be fair to say that you don’t have an expectation of how many people would be accessing this program?
MS. MUNRO: I think my colleague, Mr. Gregg, talked about the difficulty in understanding what your actual numbers and target group are based on the criteria. I would say we would be happy if we continued to see people applying who qualify and that we’re able to reach more Nova Scotians.
MR. HOUSTON: Do you have a sense - are you prepared for an increase in the number of applications? Now if the government proceeds with its changes to Pharmacare, we’ll have situations where people on the Guaranteed Income Supplement will have to now pay for their Pharmacare. They’re probably going to start to look for other programs that can help them and they would immediately be eligible for this. Have you thought that through as to what may happen? Are you expecting - 54 per cent of the people who use this program are seniors, are you expecting an increase just as a result of the major changes government is making with Pharmacare, that your own application base would increase - have you thought about that?
MS. MUNRO: As mentioned previously, we do have the budget and the budget does have a buffer built in for increase in applications, so that would be the first thing. To date we have an increase of around 3 per cent of applications processed at this point in time. It doesn’t appear to be a large volume increase on the applications being received to date. We’ll certainly keep watch of that but at this point in time, we do not have a concern that we would not be able to address all those applicants that are approved and obviously not turn away any Nova Scotian who applies and qualifies for the program.
MR. HOUSTON: So the program just bumps along, I guess, right? No changes to eligibility since 2009, no real changes to what is paid out, no real expectation of how many people it could and should be servicing, it just kind of happens. Is that an over-simplification of how this program works?
MS. MUNRO: I wouldn’t characterize it as bump along. We always look at our programs to try to find ways to improve them and to modernize them and to make sure they are well used. I will take the point about understanding, further to Mr. Gregg’s comment - is there any way we can set targets, if you will, to increase that application dollar or application amount for folks coming in?
At this point I can that it is a focused program. As I mentioned before, we are trying to find ways about providing an online application process and looking at the requirements for that could open up a whole new avenue for new information being gathered from our applications which we do not get now in a manual process.
I do believe the team takes great care in understanding how best to get this program out there and get the word out there and to use our stakeholders and ambassadors across the province to reach those people in need.
MR. HOUSTON: Do you have any sense of how people heat their homes across the province? You mentioned that 63 per cent of applicants to this program use oil, 31 per cent use electric, 6 per cent use other, which presumably is wood, propane I guess, natural gas?
MS. MUNRO: Wood and pellets.
MR. HOUSTON: In other words, if you look at your own statistics of 63 per cent, 31 per cent and 6 per cent, do you compare that to the basic understanding of how Nova Scotians heat their homes? Is it consistent, is it disproportionate, or do you have a sense as to how that fits in?
MS. MUNRO: I don’t have that information at my fingertips. I would think that it does align to the overall consumption for heat. I’m wondering if Mr. Gregg has any information in that regard. (Interruption) We don’t have that specific information with us but we can certainly get it back to the committee at a later date.
MR. HOUSTON: That would be interesting, thank you. In terms of the actual rebates that are in place - the $200 for oil and propane and then $100 for electric or wood - do you hear much on, like less than 6 per cent of your applicants are using wood, is it a little harder to receive this rebate if you’re using wood to heat your house? You need some additional forms and I don’t know if those forms are easily accessible.
MS. MUNRO: Could I defer to Mr. Gregg to answer the question around the 6 per cent?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Gregg.
MR. GREGG: We always work with applicants who claim with wood because it can present some challenges. One is that applicants may purchase wood from, say, someone down the road and they don’t have a proper receipt so we try to work with them. That can generate follow-up sometimes because we have to be certain that this person has actually paid for heat so we need certain information on a receipt saying the amount paid, the amount of wood received, and who it was being paid to.
To try to address that, anyone who has received a rebate for wood in the previous year, we will actually send them, as part of their pre-populated application, a wood invoice form to say here, if you’re buying your wood, if you can give this to the person you’re buying the wood from and have them fill it out, that’s a lot easier than sending a receipt to us with incomplete information, us having to send it back, it can cause delays in follow-up. So we try to work with them to make it as easy as possible.
There are also situations where some people cut their own wood on their own land, so they’re generating their own fuel. We qualify those people as well so we do have an additional form that if you don’t have a receipt to prove that you’ve purchased wood but you’re cutting wood from your own land, you can provide a wood declaration form and complete that and send it back to us. That way we can provide a rebate as well.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Houston, you have one minute remaining.
MR. HOUSTON: The 2,596 people who had their applications disallowed, you mentioned that they were mainly disallowed because they didn’t meet the income eligibility - did they self-report that they didn’t meet it? What analysis did you do on actual income reporting?
MR. GREGG: The way our system is set up, we have an arrangement with CRA, and if we receive a SIN and the name, we can submit that information to CRA. They’ll know our income qualifications and status requirements and it will bounce back to us if the income - it can just bounce back to us and say the income is above the threshold.
For privacy reasons, we don’t have access to the specifics or by how much or any of those things because that’s protected information, but it’s a message we get back from CRA so we’re able to track when CRA is the cause of the decline, from the information.
Now sometimes we can follow up with the person or they may follow up with us and say oh, there was a mistake with my taxes or the number is not correct or I’m earning less this year so people could, in fact, say if they applied in November and were rejected because of income but knew that in 2015 their income would qualify, they could . . .
MR. HOUSTON: What line are you . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. We’ll move now to Ms. MacDonald of the NDP caucus.
MS. MACDONALD: I have just a couple of quick questions and I’ll share my time with my colleague. We’ve seen this government cut numerous tax credits and programs for vulnerable groups. The Graduate Retention Rebate was cut and the government claimed it didn’t work; the Film Production Tax Credit was eliminated with the claim that it didn’t work; and the Seniors’ Pharmacare Program is now under attack, as are many seniors, with the idea that the government is claiming that it’s not fair and not sustainable as a program.
I’m concerned that we not see another program that is important to a large number of Nova Scotians face reductions as this government goes about its business of trying to bring the province back to balance by making choices that really hurt people. I want to ask you whether or not you think this program is working, whether or not it can be improved on, and have you recommended changes to government on the threshold, which hasn’t changed for some time, so more people could qualify, or changes in the amount of the rebate so people receive a slightly larger amount to take up the current budget allocation? So there are four questions there.
MS. MUNRO: I want to make sure I get the questions in order. We do feel that the program is working. I would say as I’ve talked about it, it’s a paper-based manual process. There are ways to make it more convenient, but also more cost effective from an administrative perspective, so that’s work that we’re undertaking and it’s important to do.
When we look at the thresholds, they are based off of the low-income cut-off Statistics Canada benchmarks, so in setting that, we are in line with the benchmarks that are used at the federal level.
We ensured as well that there wasn’t a cliff that said if you hit this threshold you’re off. So there is a sliding scale that has been put in as part of the program.
MS. MACDONALD: I understand that, but that wasn’t my question.
MS. MUNRO: I think changing the thresholds and/or changing the rebates, we do know that changing the rebate by $50 can lead to $2-plus million in the budget. So the issue is around the balance of those priorities and reaching as many Nova Scotians as we can.
There was a change that was proposed for the Good Neighbour Energy Fund, which eligibility last year and in prior years was for every three years so individuals and families could not access GNEF other than every three years. We’ve reduced that down to two years now so that does reach . . .
MS. MACDONALD: It’s a great program, but it’s a bit of a red herring when we’re talking about HARP, with all due respect. So really my question is, have you made recommendations to government to change the program to improve on it, to make it more available to either more people or to improve on the rebates that people get? That’s a very simple question.
MS. MUNRO: As all programs, we always put recommendations forward that are considered for the broad-base use of the resources of government. So yes, we’re always putting forward new ways and new approaches to government to look at the programs we have.
MS. MACDONALD: Have you recommended that the thresholds be changed or have you recommended that the amount of the rebates be changed, expanded?
MS. MUNRO: In our role as public servants, our role is to put forward analysis and options for government to consider, and yes, we’ve done that.
MS. MACDONALD: And those are two of the options you’ve brought forward?
MS. MUNRO: We look at many different options that we put forward on HARP and there are many different levers that you can use in looking at improving programs such as HARP.
MS. MACDONALD: And would those be two of the options - yes or no?
MS. MUNRO: There are only so many levers that you can use in HARP, so yes, thresholds would be one; rebates would be another. Advertising would be another. How you administer the program is another.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Wilson.
HON. DAVID WILSON: Do you ask applicants how they found out about the program so that you can gear the marketing and advertising and how to reach even more? Do you ask that on the application? I don’t know if I’ve seen that in the literature I’ve seen or read.
MS. MUNRO: I’m going to defer to Mr. Gregg to answer that question.
MR. GREGG: No, it can be a challenge to keep an application form as simple and as clear as possible and to fit it on the two pages - as opposed to adding more questions. So we don’t include it on the application form.
We have commissioned surveys in the past. I think it was in about 2012 that we did that and we looked at - people were finding out from community organizations, friends. I can get you some specific numbers from that survey, if you’d like more information.
As part of looking at this online modernization, we don’t plan to do that in isolation of not working with the applicants, so whether through focus groups or surveys, we plan on working to figure out the best way for this group to apply online and an approach that would make it easier for them to apply online.
MR. DAVID WILSON: That’s great and I think it might be worthwhile to try to maybe reach out. I think it could be cost-effective to reach out. Since 2012 we know the numbers have continued to decrease.
Has there been any discussion on making it available, a kiosk of some sort or a computer system at Access Nova Scotia so that people can apply? I would assume you can get an application there but are there ways of increasing, maybe, if they are in registering their vehicle or anything like that, that they could apply in the Access Nova Scotia office? Has there been any discussion of potentially looking at that avenue for submitting an application?
MS. MUNRO: As we start to build out this new way of applying online, we’ll certainly look at how our operations can support that. As I mentioned before, it’s not about leaving anybody behind so we’ll certainly be looking at multiple ways of expanding that modern program.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I would hope so. I know when I was in the Department of Health and Wellness one of the things I did look at and staff looked at was the utilization of programs, especially those that kept seniors, most importantly, in their homes. I hope that is part of the thinking and the examination.
You mentioned one of the reasons why we see a change in potential applicants, especially with seniors, because of the decision maybe of moving into a rental unit. Has there been any discussion on the fact that even though these seniors may be selling their homes, moving into a rental unit, they are still paying for heat, even though there may not be a direct bill mailed to them. I have to say knowing in my own community, right across the street from my constituency office, there are three or four huge complexes that have seen an increase in seniors living there. Their rents are quite high. Many seniors go towards having heat included, but that actually drives up the cost they are paying out.
Has there been any discussion on looking and evaluating, could we have a program that would help those individuals because they are still paying for heat? They may not have a bill from Nova Scotia Power or the person who cuts the wood or the company that provides oil or propane but they are still paying heat. Has there been any discussion on what we could do to help, especially the seniors - I’m kind of gearing towards seniors who are taking that step now, moving into rental units. Ultimately they still pay for heat, maybe not as direct as if they owned their own home.
MS. MUNRO: I think two things to comment on there: if we remove the requirement to prove that you paid for heat, it really becomes an income-based rebate program so it does change fundamentally the program. That would mean that all Nova Scotians could access it, so it is a key driver for a criterion for the program.
As well, the landlord, the business operator of the unit has an opportunity to include heat as part of the rebate program that he or she has regarding operating expenses, so it would be a bit of a double-dip there, so it is difficult but fundamentally that ability to prove that you pay for your heat is a key criterion for the Heating Assistance Rebate Program.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I would hope that wouldn’t limit potential future expansion of the program. I mean, I think you can put in place parameters that would require the evidence that heat is included in the rent but this is a percentage that we’ve increased or an owner of a building increased. Anyway, we’ll leave it at that.
Is there any discussion on privatizing or outsourcing this program, especially in light of Service Nova Scotia and a look at potentially outsourcing registries? Is there any discussion on outsourcing this program out of the department?
MS. MUNRO: There’s no specific conversation happening around outsourcing of the Heating Assistance Rebate Program.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Wilson, you have about two minutes remaining.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Are you sure? There’s a lot of questions I have. I guess since you’re in front of us, I’ll go to the registry and the path forward. I know there’s a road map project regarding the privatization of the registries. I know my colleague, Mr. Belliveau had sent you a letter asking for three specific pieces of information and maybe I’ll ask you here if you could provide it sometime in the next little while. We heard a couple of numbers around how much it would cost to upgrade the IT system of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Land, Joint Stocks - do you have an accurate number around that cost?
Also, the second question is, what other options besides privatization are you looking at? The third one is - we know that you’ve hired Ernst & Young as consultants regarding the registry, so how much are they being paid? I don’t know if you can answer all those in one minute; if not, if you could provide us the answer to that we’d appreciate it.
MS. MUNRO: To modernize the registries and the numbers, the estimated cost at this point in time to upgrade our registry systems is around $26 million to $34 million. That breaks down with the RMV system around $20 million to $26 million. The RJSC system is $4 million to $5 million. The Land Registry system is $2 million to $3 million.
Of course, these are estimates at this time and they are subject to change as we continue to move down the path of analysis. Can you repeat the second question?
MR. DAVID WILSON: What other options besides privatization are you looking at?
MS. MUNRO: This has been quite a journey in looking at modernizing our registry. I would say the work we’re doing is very complex and it’s very time-consuming.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. Mr. Wilson has asked if the questions couldn’t be answered in the time, if they could be provided to the committee, so perhaps that could be done. Our clerk will follow up with you on that.
We will now move along to the Liberal caucus and Mr. Maguire.
MR. MAGUIRE: I just want to go back to the forms of advertising. So the median age of Nova Scotians right now is 43.7 - if you look at the billions of users that are on Facebook and Twitter, for example, that accounts for - on Facebook, 50 per cent of all users and on Twitter, 55 per cent of all users. So I’m wondering if at the end of the fiscal year - I’m assuming this is one of your first years where you’ve done a push toward the social media side of it - if we can see the overall footprint on social media, if we can get those numbers, and the average cost per engagement compared to traditional media like newspaper and radio. Do you know what I mean? So if it costs, say, a couple hundred dollars per person for a traditional media ad, what’s the cost per social media and Twitter? Is that possible to do, do you think?
MS. MUNRO: We’ll certainly be looking at that ourselves as part of that analysis work with the team. It will be information that I think will help us on the go-forward to decide where to spend and where not to spend and where the most effective use is in looking at social media and digital, and have we reached the target group that we want.
As I look to my right to Mr. Gregg, I would say that would be something that we would look to share with the committee once the program is complete and the analysis has been completed.
MR. MAGUIRE: That would be greatly appreciated. My last question is around the Good Neighbour Energy Program. The changes were announced at the Salvation Army in Spryfield, which I was there for, which had a great reaction. You’ve changed the criteria from three years down to two years for applicants. What was the thought process around that and what kind of impact do you foresee this having on communities such as Spryfield?
MS. MUNRO: Our intent with that change is to reach more vulnerable Nova Scotians with the emergency needs. As to the analysis as to how many people we might reach because of that change, if I could defer to Mr. Gregg.
MR. GREGG: We’ve been running the program for a number of years with similar thresholds so we’ve noticed that there’s room to grow with this program. Last year we had a total number of recipients of around 1,750 and it has been staying around that level for the last three years. We’re estimating now that we can help more people, close to 2,500 people we’re thinking. These are estimates, we don’t know the uptake. Our initial indications are that that uptake has increased as a result of the threshold change.
MR. MAGUIRE: I just wanted to say that one of the concerns that I’m hearing and have heard in the past from constituents is access to this program, that the three-year wait is a long time to wait. It was good that your department actually listened and dropped that from three to two years - I think it’s a very positive move. With that, I’ll pass it on to my colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Lohnes-Croft.
MS. LOHNES-CROFT: I just want a clarification. In order to qualify for the HARP you have to be living in the dwelling that you are applying for the rebate? Therefore, if you are in a long-term care home and you also own a home and you are paying heat, often through a transition while you are trying to sell it, because you are not living in the actual house you cannot apply?
MS. MUNRO: I’ll defer to Mr. Gregg to answer the operational question.
MR. GREGG: What the applicant would need to do is they could apply from that address. They would have to have a heating bill in their name that is sent to that home where they pay for heat. If they are in the process of transitioning to a long-term care facility and they are still closing out the other home, as long as they are paying for heat at that address in their name, they could receive a rebate.
MS. LOHNES-CROFT: Thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. If there are no further questions from the Liberal caucus, our questioning is now complete. Ms. Munro, if you’d like to offer some closing comments.
MS. MUNRO: Once again I’d like to thank the committee members for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Heating Assistance Rebate Program. I’d like to express the gratitude to all members of the House of Assembly for promoting and supporting the HARP program. Thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Ms. Munro. You and your colleagues are free to leave. We do have some committee business outstanding from last week, correspondence from Mr. Houston. As you recall, our meeting last week came to a close on time, at 11:00 a.m. and this issue was still before the committee.
Mr. Houston, you had put forward a motion and it is stated in your January 29th letter, the motion being to extend the February 17th meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts by one hour and invite the Minister of Health and Wellness to attend to provide clarity around changes to the Seniors’ Pharmacare Program.
That motion is still before the floor. Mr. Rankin, did you have a comment?
MR. RANKIN: Yes, I do actually. I made similar comments when this motion was on the floor last week and the reasoning why we can’t support it. I think it’s borderline out of order, in terms of the way the motion is drafted, calling in a minister to a committee that is supposed to look at administration of government money spent. The person who is in charge of the administration of every department is a deputy minister, which is why that’s the witness that is encouraged by the Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees to come to Public Accounts.
I’d like to table a document. There’s several copies here for the benefit of the members who weren’t able to go to the conferences or receive training. We’ve had the CCPAC group come in, I think just once. I think we could benefit from it again. We can have a separate discussion on that but the salient points in the document that I’ve looked at are that - and this you can see on our own mandate which is online but I’ll quote Page 3: “Unlike most committees, they are not involved in the legislative process and do not consider legislative bills. They are supposed to focus on the administration of government programs, not on criticizing the government’s policy direction.”
I think Pharmacare is a blatant disregard for what our mandate is when you are criticizing policy. I don’t think there’s any problem with criticizing policy, I’m questioning the arena in which you do that in. I understand that the Opposition, with the House not sitting, that they need to try to find any mechanism they can to challenge that policy. But given the fact that Pharmacare, the changes are not going to be introduced until April 1st and that’s assuming that they are not going to change between now and then, so again, I have no problem with asking for information from departments. I don’t think you need the Public Accounts Committee to do that as the channel.
Page 23 specifically says to “Discourage ministers from sitting on the PAC and appearing before PAC as witnesses.” So that’s for the reasons that I’ve already mentioned. These are best practices that are shared nationally. It’s pretty black and white there, and policy discussions are left to other legislative committees. Now I recognize we don’t have a health committee and that’s a symptom of why a lot of the major health issues are coming in, but that does not mean that we should usurp the primary mandate of what the Public Accounts Committee is for.
I’ll also read a quote from the Chair of the Yukon PAC: “We are a non-partisan committee with a mandate to ensure economy, efficiency and effectiveness in public spending - in other words, accountability for the use of public funds. Our task is not to challenge government policy but to examine its implementation.”
I know there’s a proclivity to always challenge the policy when we’re in a partisan arena, but the whole idea of the training of this and to make a better committee is to try to act in what they call constructive partisanship. You have your own tendencies and your own ideas of how policies should be drafted.
I’ll end with reading one more thing on the constructive partisanship, which is on Page 36. It explains “. . . the importance of constructive working relationships, with a focus on improving the administration of government policy rather than focusing on policy itself.”
So obviously there are issues with supposed policy and there is a presupposition of how that policy impacts people. All I’m saying is that if we bring in ministers we’re getting in the political hyper-partisan realm and it’s pretty clear from what I’ve learned - and I know I haven’t been around that long, but I know that is supposed to be in the Chamber and left to Budget Estimates.
If you have a political question - you’re questioning policy - that goes to the minister. Again, I’m not challenging that. Those are two separate issues. I’m challenging the arena in which those issues are brought forth. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Houston.
MR. HOUSTON: I thank Mr. Rankin for his comments and research on the issue, but the motion before us is to have the minister attend here to discuss the Pharmacare changes. Mr. Rankin makes the point that this is not the place to discuss policy, but I think the part that’s lacking from that argument is when you look at the number of policies across government, a policy is not a policy is not a policy.
The Pharmacare Program is a very significant program that impacts every single Nova Scotian. There’s an historical portion to that program where historically the Pharmacare Program was funded 25 per cent by seniors, 75 per cent by taxpayers and over time that has kind of eroded a little bit, let’s say, where I think the numbers that the deputy minister - to the extent that the deputy minister was willing to answer the questions of this committee, which was very limited, the degree of questions that he would answer.
He did say that the program cost $166 million last year and seniors paid, I think, $53 million. So if you do that math, you can see how that historical relationship is changing. It’s clear to me - and I think it’s clear to most Nova Scotians - that this government is proposing changes to dramatically alter that historical relationship.
I think that in the context of that alone, if the Liberal Party wants to produce documentation that says it’s only deputy ministers that can come here and answer questions, then the least they could do is support us. When deputy ministers appear before this committee and refuse to answer questions, then the very least the Liberal Party could do is support us when we put our hand up and say, hold on, this committee deserves an answer. In this case specifically, not one member from the Liberal side put their hand up and said, why isn’t the deputy minister answering these questions?
In fact, they went a step further last week when my colleague asked this committee to request additional documentation supporting what the deputy minister did not tell us in response to a question, but told the media when we said we need more information, these Liberal members stood up in their place, one by one, and said no, this committee will not get more information on this.
We can’t have our cake and eat it too, I think is the expression, Mr. Chairman. I would say we need more information about the Pharmacare changes. People are concerned about the Pharmacare changes. If you listen to the government sound bites, changes will go live April 1st.
April 1st is not that far away, Mr. Chairman, and there’s so much unknown about the impact of these changes, what are the changes, who do they impact, who do they not impact? I would be disappointed if my colleagues on this committee don’t see the significance of the changes on Nova Scotians and aren’t willing to help Nova Scotians get more information about this very significant change which is happening in real time. I’ll be interested to see if the Liberal members can look past some precedents, which are probably not even relevant to what we’re talking about here, and inject a bit of common sense into this and support the motion.
The deputy minister was here, he wouldn’t answer our questions so where do we turn? We have to turn to the minister and that is the context in which I propose this motion so I’m hopeful that the Liberal members will support more information for Nova Scotians, instead of advocating for less information for Nova Scotians. So the motion to have the minister appear next week, it’s a very convenient time, his staff will all be here anyway.
We’ve heard very little from this minister on this issue. We’ve had a Premier say not that the changes are wrong but the way the changes were communicated were wrong. It’s an age-old political game, Mr. Chairman, in discussion of partisanship, it’s what we’re seeing. I would hope that the members will support the minister coming and answering questions about his changes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Mr. Wilson and then Mr. Rankin.
MR. DAVID WILSON: We do support this motion. Our committee in Nova Scotia, the Public Accounts Committee, has been recognized, I believe, as a progressive Public Accounts Committee not only in Canada but in the Commonwealth. We’ve been recognized as leaders. We know that from the visits we have, from the discussions I’ve had over the last well not 12 years but I’ve been on this committee for close to nine years. I believe we are looked upon as leaders because we continue to kind of change and adapt our committee and aren’t afraid of the old conventions or change in the conventions of the committee.
I recall a couple of changes over the last 12 or 13 years that I think have improved the work we do as a committee. One was, I believe, the rule for many years was that no Leader of a recognized Party would sit on the committee. I believe it was in the early 2000s - under the Liberal Party, Danny Graham chose to sit on the committee and it was accepted and he contributed immensely to this committee. I have to turn to my left and say that our Leader has contributed a lot, not only as a former Chair of this committee but as a member. We’ve had precedents in this committee where we’ve had former members or current members testify. I recall Dr. Hamm being here and I recall Ernie Fage being here.
I do believe we need to continue to move forward. When we come up to roadblocks or come across roadblocks like we did a number of weeks ago or last week with the deputy minister, that it’s paramount that we, and I believe Nova Scotians would want us to do everything we can to make sure we have the right information in front of us. I believe that at this time it’s the minister who could provide us with that information so we will support the motion from my colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin.
MR. RANKIN: I guess that’s just more hyper-partisanship, to be honest. The words that they are using and proposing policy says it right there, that this is not the committee for it. The tone even used - these Liberal members are voting against a motion that denies people access to information - is the most partisan you can get for what we’re trying to achieve in this committee.
Where is the report? I mean, a good litmus test is, what would the Auditor General look at if he’s looking at a report? What are we analyzing? Where is the money spent on this proposed new policy? You’re looking at economic forecasts - and again, that’s a separate issue. You want the information, email the department. Every time I’ve contacted a department they’ve been forthcoming with any information that I wanted so why do you want to try to drag it in to obfuscate what the Public Accounts Committee is meant for?
MR. CHAIRMAN: We do have before us a motion to be put to a vote, but we do have - just to summarize, Mr. Rankin has provided a recommendation from the Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees which states that Public Accounts Committees should avoid bringing ministers to committees. We have a legal opinion from our legal counsel that the committee may invite a minister, but cannot compel or subpoena a minister to appear. If the minister refuses to appear, the committee may refer the matter to the House, which may then order the member to appear, and certainly the minister can appear voluntarily.
The meeting next week, being February 17th, is with the Department of Health and Wellness, the topic being mental health programs, services and strategy. The motion before the committee by Mr. Houston is that the Minister of Health and Wellness attend that meeting, that the meeting be extended for one hour so that questions can be asked and the minister can answer to provide clarity around changes to the Seniors’ Pharmacare Program.
Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
There has been a call for a recorded vote. We will begin with Mr. Rankin. We will proceed in a counter-clockwise direction. I am actually going to vote when it comes to me for the ease of our audio-visual services. Mr. Rankin, please answer yes or no.
Mr. Houston Mr. Rankin
Ms. MacDonald Mr. Maguire
Mr. David Wilson Ms. Lohnes-Croft
Mr. MacMaster Mr. Gough
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is defeated.
Ms. MacDonald, do you have a comment?
MS. MACDONALD: Mr. Chairman, I’d like to - in the interest of maybe trying to find some common ground on this - put forward a motion that the committee invite the Deputy Minister of Seniors to appear in front of the committee next week as an additional hour for our committee. So we would keep our agenda as established, but we would meet for an additional hour, and not with a minister, but with the Deputy Minister of Seniors who has been meeting with seniors’ organizations with respect to the Pharmacare situation.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin, you have a comment.
MR. RANKIN: My comment would be - we had agenda-setting three weeks ago. That was the opportunity to bring topics forward. Even Pharmacare could have been a topic if you want to analyze past expenditures with the program, but that wasn’t put forward by the Opposition. So I don’t think it’s - you can’t just come every meeting and propose new topics. That’s what agenda-setting is for. So I don’t think that motion is in order.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Houston.
MR. HOUSTON: I definitely support the motion. In the time that I’ve been on this committee, which admittedly is not that long, but going back - I don’t think it has been the practice of members of this committee to just show up and try to put topics on the agenda.
MR. RANKIN: Whatever is in the news.
MR. HOUSTON: Mr. Rankin says that whenever something is in the news we try to do that, and I would certainly challenge him to go back. The difference here is this is a very significant change that’s impacting a lot of Nova Scotians. It’s causing a lot of angst in the community. It’s a very timely issue and Nova Scotians deserve information on it.
I’m just surprised that with the existence of an obvious vacuum of information, I haven’t heard the Minister of Health and Wellness talk about this since the day he said this was a wonderful thing, I haven’t heard him say one word about it. I haven’t heard anyone from the government say anything about this policy, other than maybe we made a mistake in a letter.
Mr. Chairman, there’s information that is needed. This committee has a chance to step up and help get information to Nova Scotians, in the face of an absence of it. To say that the Opposition shows up every week and tries to put a new topic on, that’s just not true. This is an important social issue of our time, it’s very timely. We have an opportunity to provide service to Nova Scotians and I think we should take that opportunity.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Houston. The motion before the committee, and after conferring with Legislative Counsel, the motion is in order, motions can be put forth like this so it must go to a vote.
Would all those in favour of Ms. MacDonald’s motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
There is a request for a recorded vote. We will again follow the same order, I will begin with Mr. Rankin.
Mr. Houston Mr. Rankin
Ms. MacDonald Mr. Maguire
Mr. David Wilson Ms. Lohnes-Croft
Mr. MacMaster Mr. Gough
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion has been defeated.
Our next meeting is February 17th with the Department of Health and Wellness to discuss Mental Health Programs, Services and Strategy. Mr. Stroink.
MR. STROINK: I just want to make one comment before we have the next meeting; I ask that the chairman, the vice-chairman, and Mr. Pickup have a discussion just based on the questioning of what kind of questions can be asked. He had the great fortune to meet with a lot of the other Public Accounts colleagues across Canada.
My issue is, we bring in ministers or deputy ministers about a topic that we’ve set as an agenda and then questions veer quite dramatically off those topics. A lot of the times those deputy ministers aren’t prepared for that.
The ability to ask questions on whatever topic is totally allowed, I think, but at the same time we have to allow for deputy ministers to have time to collect themselves and be ready for questions. Next week is on mental health, I am sure, based on this conversation here, the questions are going to veer very off that topic. I just want some direction from the chairman, Mr. Pickup and the vice-chairman on that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Stroink. We have met in the past on that and we will aim to do something - sorry, Mr. Stroink.
MR. STROINK: He just met with them last week or a couple of weeks ago on this, somewhere in Canada when they all met. Just to follow up on that, that’s all I ask.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Stroink, we will do that. I will state - we have just a minute left - I certainly respect your point. This committee, of course though, does operate based on its legislative mandate which is independent of meetings the Auditor General might have.
I’m not saying that to refute your point, I think you make a relevant point. It’s something we will discuss and certainly if any time members feel a question is out of order they are free to object and we will make a ruling in counsel with our legal counsel.
Thank you, this meeting is adjourned.
[The committee adjourned at 10:59 a.m.]