Thousands of Canadians who have been denied federal disability benefits have been waiting more than a year to have their appeals heard by the federal government's new Social Security Tribunal, which is clearing just a small fraction of the cases every month.
Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based consultant who helps sick and injured people appeal decisions of the Canada Pension Plan disabilities program, says one of her clients died before her hearing could be scheduled, and many others are declaring bankruptcy.
"It's not a welfare program. These people paid into it," Ms. Schmidt said of CPP disability benefits. The delays, she said, are a "disgrace."
The federal Conservative government eliminated last year a board of more than 1,000 part-time referees who heard appeals of employment insurance, CPP and Old Age Security decisions. It was replaced on April 1, 2013, with the Social Security Tribunal, which has fewer than 70 full-time members – 35 of whom have been assigned to the income-security section, which includes CPP and OAS. The tribunal inherited 7,224 appeals of income-security cases from its predecessor – most of them launched by people who were denied CPP disability benefits. There were also 3,741 new CPP and OAS appeals filed last year. But the tribunal heard just 348 income-security appeals in its first 13 months of operation. So, even though more than 700 cases were settled without a hearing, there are nearly 10,000 still waiting in the queue.
"If they keep going at this rate, and nobody else applies, it's going to take them nine-and-a-half years to hear all of the current income-security appeals," said Jinny Sims, NDP critic for employ- ment and social development.
Dominique Forget, the senior director of the tribunal, said adjudicators were hampered last year by a regulation that gave appellants and the government 365 days, starting April 1, 2013, to file documents and give notice that they were ready to proceed . That applied even to appeals that had been launched years earlier, Ms. Forget said.
In the first 12 months, "we didn't have many cases where the parties told us they were ready to proceed," she said.
The 365-day deadline on all of the inherited cases has now expired so all of those cases are being handed off to the adjudicators, explained Ms. Forget. She couldn't say how many cases are being heard every month or predict how fast the tribunal will get through the backlog. But "if we jump in time and we go to April 2015," she said, "I am sure the picture will look quite different."
Ms. Schmidt is not optimistic. She said she doesn't believe 35 people can clear a backlog of nearly 10,000 appeals.
"Some of these files are inches thick," said Ms. Schmidt. "You've got complex medical information to review. Then you've got to apply the legislative tenets. Then you've got to have a hearing. And then you've got to write the decision."
One of Ms. Schmidt's clients suffered a stroke several years ago. He also has severe arthritis which makes it impossible to continue working as a welder and is depleting his retirement savings just to survive.
When his claim for CPP disability was rejected, he filed an appeal in July 2012. Ms. Schmidt said she told the tribunal last fall that the man is prepared to proceed with a hearing but has heard nothing.
Rodger Cuzner, the Liberal critic for Employment and Social Development, said the Social Security Tribunal is just "another example of how vulnerable Canadians end up paying for poorly planned and implemented programs. Everyone knew this was going to happen except the government."