As the provincial government holds consultations to develop the New Brunswick Family Plan, and with 13.8% of New Brunswick families living in poverty, the New Brunswick Medical Society has partnered with the Centre for Effective Practice to produce a guide to help doctors better identify and assist patients in need. The guide follows in the footsteps of similar “poverty tools” which have seen success in other provinces and territories. Among other advice, it encourages doctors to ask their patients if they have filled out their tax forms, to ensure patients are able to qualify for more selective benefits.
Let’s face it – no one likes doing their taxes. But we’ve dealt with many New Brunswickers in a common situation. They made very little money last year, or even no money at all. They haven’t received a formal paycheque. They didn’t do their taxes last year, or the year before, and they don’t have a current address listed on any recent financial documents. To benefit from financial aid services, citizens must fill out their tax return. This makes sense for many reasons, but it poses a challenge for people who really think filling out their taxes is a waste of time – or worse, that the government will start asking them for tax money.
Addressing the impacts of poverty and what we call the social determinants of health – the kind of house you live in, whether or not you are working, what education you have received, and so on - are at the tip of our tongues as engaged community members. Addressing poverty is also the raison d’etre of countless non-profit organizations and government officials. All of these people are all doing their best to see the “needle move” on poverty, but what can we do today to make a difference?
One of the things we notice as doctors is that there are a number of complaints from people who stress that there aren’t enough services available for those who really need them. We partly agree with them, but we know there are many services in the community already which are available and have capacity, but they only work if people know about them.
On that note, we need to continue to advocate for a registry of community resources that spans the province but has local community input. It should be linked to other provinces’ resource directories. Many provinces have a service called 211. 211 lists national resources, which are available to all Canadians, but also provincial and local forms of assistance as well. The pilot for 211nb.ca is underway and is a province-wide online database of resources. Once it is up and running around the province, it will have 24/7/365 service to help direct citizens and organizations to resources which can help them.
For New Brunswickers living in poverty, filling out their taxes could be their first step to a better financial future – and as doctors, we’d say a much healthier future, too.