Changes to Special Needs Allowances: Costs more, does less for those in need

July 17, 2013

Halifax—On August 8th, 2011, the Nova Scotia government made several changes that affect access to special needs allowances under the income assistance system. Last summer, the CCPA-NS began an analysis of these changes, interviewing stakeholders and holding a community forum. Today the report, Cornerstone Compromised: a critical analysis of the changes to special needs assistance in Nova Scotia, based on this research is being released. 

The most significant change the government made almost two years ago, was to make Nova Scotia one of only three Canadian jurisdictions that do not have an “open-ended” clause in their income assistance regulations, which allows for flexibility to consider the particular circumstances of cases that do not fit into the closed list of allowed items. 

One recent situation involves a mother who is desperately in need of speech language therapy for her eight year-old child who has profound speech impediments and who is now forced to go without during the summer months when school is out. Formerly, the program would have permitted approval of such therapy as an “essential” health need. Now, the child is forced to languish as there are no services anywhere in government available. 

"I was really struck by what the research revealed about the mismatch between the government's stated intentions and the outcomes of the changes," say co-author and CCPA-NS Director, Christine Saulnier. "The effects on the ground provide evidence of either the unintended consequences of a poorly thought out policy change or an intentional outcome of decisions that were not originally or publicly communicated. Regardless of intentions, many applicants are now without adequate treatment, feel demoralized in relation to the changes, and are experiencing problems navigating the income assistance system.  " 

Stella Lord, Co-Author and Board member of the Community Society to End Poverty-NS, says, "these changes have created gaps and oversights and made the system even more inconsistent and unfair. Merely repealing the August 8, 2011 changes is not enough. In order to satisfactorily meet the needs of Nova Scotians living in poverty and support their health and dignity, a new income assistance system is needed. However, major policy reform takes time and steps need to be taken immediately to improve the situation of Nova Scotia’s ESIA applicants and recipients." 

As Dr. Anne Houstoun of the North End Community Health Centre says of the possibility that the government will save money, "the denial of special needs allowances, even when medical evidence of their necessity is provided, will cost the system more money with increased health care costs. And, moreover, will result in more pain and suffering." 

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Remove barriers to access to special needs
    • Reinstate an ‘open-ended clause’ in the ESIA regulations
    • Repeal most of the ‘special needs prohibitions’ in s. 24(2) of the Regulations
    • Restore the decision-making authority for special needs to the ESIA Regulations
    • Fully index special food-related allowances
    • Streamline the intake process and requirements for adequate documentation
  • Implement meaningful stakeholder engagement procedures
  • Incorporate human rights perspective into ESIA legislation
  • Make transformational reform of the Income Assistance Program a Top Priority
  • Implement a Poverty Reduction Action Plan as integral to developing Healthy Public Policy


The report, Cornerstone Compromised: A critical analysis of changes to Special Needs Assistance in Nova Scotia co-authored by Sara Wuite, Christine Saulnier and Stella Lord, can be downloaded free at:  For more information, or to arrange interviews, contact CCPA-NS Director, Christine Saulnier at (902) 477-1252 or (902) 240-0926 (cell) or email [email protected]

 The CCPA-NS is an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social and economic justice, as well as environmental sustainability.