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Social Security Tribunal can't manage cases

OTTAWA - Ailing, disabled and unemployed Canadians seeking benefits have been facing increasingly long waits to have their appeals heard, even as full-time positions on the government's woefully backlogged Social Security Tribunal have remain unfilled.

Documents obtained via the Access to Information Act suggest there won't be any new hirings on the tribunal until March, despite a backlog of thousands of cases and the Conservative government's assurances earlier this year that the jobs would soon be filled.

The government, meantime, says only two of the 12 vacancies that were still open as of July 18 remain to be filled. New employees were hired this summer and two more will be hired this fall, said a spokesman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

The Social Security Tribunal was created in 2013 with the aim of providing a more efficient and streamlined appeal process for employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan and old age security decisions.

It replaced a board of hundreds of part-time referees who heard appeals. The government said the new tribunal would save Canadian taxpayers $25 million a year.

The tribunal, which has fewer than 70 full-time members, took over more than 7,000 appeals of income-security cases from the old board, most of them involving Canadians who were denied CPP disability benefits.

As many as 6,000 still haven't been heard, and there are generally about 3,000 new appeals every year. Among the documents is a memorandum from the head of the tribunal, Murielle Brazeau, alerting Kenney that the tribunal is struggling to manage the caseload.

Under federal regulations, the tribunal must make a decision on the cases or schedule an appeal after 365 days.

"Given the magnitude of the backlog, the tribunal will not be able to assign all those cases without delay," she said of cases reaching the 365-day mark.

Nick Koolsbergen, a spokesman for Kenney, said the tribunal is "implementing a plan to deal with these cases in a timely way." The tribunal did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Jinny Sims, the NDP's employment critic, was harshly critical of the government.

"They took a system that needed improvement and they've broken it," she said in an interview Friday. "And it's the most vulnerable in society who are impacted."

Sims had harsh words for Kenney, saying not only is he neglecting to authorize the hiring of part-time employees to deal with the backlog, but he won't even fill all the allocated full-time positions.

Sims suggests that's because the Conservatives are consumed with pinching pennies — often at the expense of downtrodden Canadians.

Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based disability claims advocate and consultant, decried the swelling backlog of cases and lengthening wait times, saying the delays have resulted in financial ruin, poverty, emotional distress and a lack of access to medication and treatment for many of her clients.

"If this system existed in the private sector it would be out of business and held accountable," she said. "They're doing this on the backs of the most vulnerable people; that's what's so disgraceful about it."

Rather than creating a more efficient system, appeals are now being heard at a far slower pace, she added.

"I've been doing this work for 16 years, and since the implementation of the tribunal on April 1, 2013, I think I've had maybe six appeals," Schmidt said. "Prior to that, it was 50 a year."

Schmidt passed along an email she recently received from a longtime IT worker for a municipal government in western Canada who was diagnosed with a brain tumour a year ago.

Despite paying into CPP for 25 years, he was denied CPP disability benefits in June and is awaiting his appeal.

"Basically, I have become a loser with no pride, extreme fear/anxiety and no hope," he wrote.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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