Nearly two years and three Government Ministers later and still no Financial Assistance Reform, as promised to address and reduce the $4 million local taxpayers pay out every month.

The Financial Assistance (FA) Reform Group has submitted 30 recommendations – 17 were accepted.

When contacted by Bermuda Real, a spokeswoman said: “They are a work in progress as significant changes are necessary.

“The department continues to actively improve its processes to increase efficiency. These are necessary in order to progress with reform.”

She also confirmed that “the monthly Financial Assistance budget still averages $4 million per month for Financial Assistance Clients and Child Day Care Allowance”.

Seven months later, the big question is – what has actually happened to make FA Reform a reality?

The first two recommendations to review the “organizational structure and operation of the Department of Financial Assistance to determine the optimal structure to meet current and projected client demand”. That process got underway in April.

The second recommendation was to “relocate” the department’s offices “to suitable premise that are located at street level, thereby providing easier access for seniors and other financial assistance clients”.

But the Ministry did not accept the recommendation to “consider organizing financial assistance work teams by client category, with several work teams servicing the larger financial assistance categories, eg – seniors”.

Instead, they opted to conduct a “review by management services to determine best practice operational procedures and structure”.

Another recommendation calls on government to “re-examine the policy on overseas travel while on financial assistance with a view to reducing potential abuse of the system in this area”.

The Ministry accepts “there has been quite a bit of abuse of this policy”, and said “the penalties should be more punitive otherwise the behavior will not change”.
But as of September: “This remains a challenge as the department is reliant on ‘whistleblowers’ and “proposals are being developed for consequences for those that break the rules.” It hasn’t happened yet.
Another recommendation called on government to “conduct more frequent advertising of the Department of Financial Assistance’s Hotline number”.
But the Ministry’s assessment noted that “the hotline is seldom used by the public”, and remains a “work in progress”.

As of January 2019, there were 3,268 FA recipients – 1,184 Pensioners/Seniors, 896 Persons with disabilities, 214 Abled-bodies unemployed, 362 Persons with low earnings and 612 children on day care allowance.

An Internal Audit report was “completed subsequent to the Reform Group’s conclusion” to develop “a more focused and targeted approach to achieve the most impactful reforms”.
In February, Health Minister Kim Wilson told MP’s that  “the Internal Audit report recommendations are being acted on immediately to bring urgent essential improvements as soon as possible over the next 12 to 18 months”.

The department reviewed their “pre-screening’ process so that the new system to reduce the time “that clients will have to sit for their initial interview” and implemented a 30-day window “so that clients will receive a response in a timely manner”.

To ensure “a more equitable allocation of awards and achieving financial sustainability of the programme”, the Government plans “to change the formula that is used to determine eligibility and awards”.

A “legislated formula to establish awards” will be set up “so that eligibility is based on measures associated with the ‘low income threshold’ calculated by the Department of Statistics, rather than the current (allowable) Expenses – (qualifying) Income = (FA) Award”.

“As Minister of Health, I want us to see changes that will discourage the purchase of non-nutritive food and beverages, as is currently done with tobacco and alcohol.

“And I would like to find ways for the Government to recover debt and/or off-set the cost of benefits through the property of deceased financial assistance recipients,” she added.

While noting that the FA programme “is vital to our community”, she said it is “the only form of welfare available to assist the vulnerable, frail and infirm, and the only means to prevent families from descending into poverty”.

But she said: “Funds are finite and we have to make sure that we use them efficiently and they reach the right people.

“We expect that the reforms under way will change the face of the programme to achieve financial sustainability and a more equitable allocation of awards.”

Three ministers later and it hasn’t happened yet.

In November 2017, Mr Desilva said there’s no way Bermuda can sustain the $1-million-a-week price tag attached to financial assistance – $4 million in taxpayer dollars paid out every single month.

The number of people on financial assistance at that point in time had nearly doubled within six years.

“The trends of increasing numbers of clients and the high cost of financial assistance are not sustainable and must be reduced,”  he said.

He also announced the appointment of the 12-member Financial Assistance Reform Group, assigned to “aggressively” reform the current programme”.

With an ageing population and a declining middle class, including countless Bermudians who have left the island, he warned that even more seniors will need financial assistance moving forward.

The bottom line – the total number of financial assistance recipients will keep going up – not down.

Prior to the last General Election, Michael Weeks was the Shadow Minister with responsibility for Financial Assistance.Affairs.

When Mr DeSilva resigned In January 2018, Mr Weeks was appointed as Minister of Community Affairs. Then he was sidelined to the back bench.

When Mr DeSilva returned to Cabinet as Minister of Tourism and Transport in November 2018, Lovitta Foggo was assigned to Community Affairs, but Financial Assistance was moved to the Ministry of Health.

With consultation with stakeholders, including a series of town hall meetings on healthcare reform scheduled to be held, starting this month, Mr & Mrs Bermuda has heard very little, if anything in recent months on FA Reform in recent months.

Flashback to the Bermuda Real interview with then Shadow Minister of Community Affairs, Michael Weeks, on May 3, 2016, when his the Minister responsible for financial assistance was One Bermuda Alliance MP Patricia Gordon-Pamplin.

Mr Weeks told MP’s: “To fix what is happening in our community we need to recognise the role that Ministry can play.”

Citing unemployment and the fact that no job also means no health insurance, he reminded MP’s that “80 percent of all of the debt in Bermuda’s Debt Collection Court lies solely with hospital bills accumulated due to unemployment”.

“This surely has to affect single moms who are uninsured, or under-insured when trying to get health and/or dental treatment for their children,” he said.

“What happens to my people who are uninsured or under-insured?”

At that point in time, funding for financial assistance increased by more than $5 million in the 2016/17 Budget, to $54,561,000 – an 11 percent increase.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin said: “Although the higher overall number of clients are among seniors/pensioners (at 35 percent) and the disabled (at 32 percent); the higher number of applicants are able-bodied unemployed and earnings low persons.”

The increase was attributed to shrinking personal financial resources, inability to find employment, job losses and redundancies” and “the categories of able-bodied unemployed and earnings low persons…more than doubled”.

“This equates to a monthly payout of over $1,057,000 just for these two categories of clients,” she added.

The top four “high-ticket items for payout” listed – rent, rest home and nursing home fees, insurance premiums and food.

Mr Weeks warned: “With surging unemployment, people who have paid diligently paid their taxes must not be treated like social outcasts, or be looked down upon. They have paid their way and we must support them in their time of need.

“Further reform is required in terms of policies that hurt rather than elevate the conditions of people forced to turn to Financial Assistance.”

He called for a temporary change in policy “to allow people who have lost their jobs to apply for assistance immediately and not have to wait three months, by which time their savings have dwindled and their personal debt is likely to have grown”.

Any reform should “reflect our times” and address “the needs of today’s unemployed in a real way”, he added.

In 2017, monthly FA payments “increased significantly”, from approximately $2.5 million in 2011 to just over $4 million in 2017″.

The cost of administering the FA Programme  went up “significantly” as well.