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Ottawa looks to shore up senior benefits program to prevent fraud, mistakes

In May, the federal government started testing a simplified application form for old age security benefits to prevent any misunderstandings about eligibility.

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Federal officials are working to eliminate any fraud or mistakes from the government's largest seniors benefits program through a massive review of payments and testing a new way to catch problems before they get into the system.

Government officials are in the midst of a large-scale, national review of existing old age security recipients with investigators contacting seniors to go over details like marital status, unreported departures from Canada or unreported deaths.

And in May, the government started testing a new, simplified application form for old age security benefits to prevent any misunderstandings about eligibility — specifically the questions about residency where concerns have been raised about potential fraud.

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The findings from the review and the application pilot project will feed into a larger strategy to modernize the old age security program and improve payment accuracy.

The department overseeing the program, Employment and Social Development Canada, says payments are accurate almost 99 per cent of the time.

But mistakes even one per cent of the time can mean hundreds of millions in mistaken payments: Old age security benefits are expected to cost the federal treasury about $51.1 billion this fiscal year, almost the combined total of payments this year through employment insurance and the Canada Child Benefit.

And the spending is expected to grow by about 5.7 per cent annually between now and 2021, faster than the projected increase in the size of the Canadian economy, based on forecasts in this year's federal budget.

Under old age security rules, a person has to have lived in Canada for at least 10 years after they turn 18 and make their "home and ordinary lives in any part of Canada" to be eligible for payments.

This means more than a physical presence in Canada: A person may have properties in multiple countries, but only one of them is considered home, so the department evaluates how attached an applicant is to Canada.

Last October, a former Service Canada employee detailed in a lengthy document — a cross between a report and presentation, complete with tables, illustrations and photos — his belief that the OAS application was flawed, specifically the question about residency.

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Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos had a chance to read the missive in a briefing note from department officials earlier this year. Officials argued that the former employee's concerns were misplaced, noting that the percentage of inaccurate payments are minimal.

The most recent figures from the department show that payments were accurate in 98.64 per cent of cases. Updated numbers for the last fiscal year, which ended in March, will be available at the end of the summer.

"Though validating residence requirements present some inherent risk to the program, this risk relates specifically to a subset of applicants and is mitigated through a number of established departmental practices," officials wrote to Duclos in a briefing note obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information law.

The briefing note detailed the new application form and the large-scale residency review.

There is also a government bill that would allow the Canada Border Services Agency to collect and share information with ESDC about everyone leaving the country so the data could be used to determine whether someone has been honest on their application form. The bill, known as C-21, was introduced in June 2016, but hasn't budged on the legislative agenda.

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