POLITICS

What happened to plan to prevent appeals backlog at social security tribunal?

11/28/2014 05:20 EST | Updated 01/28/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - In 2012, prior to the launch of Ottawa's troubled social security tribunal, there was a plan in the works to ensure Canadians denied employment insurance or Canada Pension Plan benefits would have their appeals heard in a timely way.

Sue Foster, a federal government official, told a Senate finance committee in May of that year that by the summer, regulations would be drafted to make sure appeals would be heard within 100 days under the new system.

Two years later, the tribunal is now plagued with an 11,000-case backlog — mostly ailing Canadians seeking CPP disability benefits, now caught in a pileup that's forcing them to wait years to have their appeals heard.

"Legislating the timelines associated with this is meant to improve the service to clients in terms of the period of time that they have to wait for their appeals to be heard," Foster told the committee in May 2012, 11 months before the tribunal officially began operation.

"They have not actually been drafted yet, but they will be drafted in the summer."

At the time, Foster was with the department that's now known as Employment and Social Development and helmed by Jason Kenney.

Employment and Social Development Canada says regulations were in fact drafted to ensure Canadians heard back promptly from the department regarding the status of their appeals.

An official for the department also said the tribunal has hired an outside firm to come up with a plan to shrink the backlog as quickly as possible.

Earlier this week, Kenney told a parliamentary committee that the government was unaware when it launched the new panel in April 2013 that it was inheriting a backlog of 7,000 appeals from the former pension review tribunal.

He added he was personally "dismayed to learn" about the backlog when he took over the portfolio from Diane Finley in July 2013.

The former head of the pension review tribunal, Julie Gagnon, could not be reached for comment on Friday about whether her officials alerted the government about the backlog of cases it was inheriting as it replaced four appeal boards with a single tribunal.

The head of the new tribunal, however, told the same committee earlier this month that she knew of the backlog from Day 1. Murielle Brazeau testified she'd discussed the pileup of cases with the minister's office "throughout the whole process."

In the months leading up to the launch of the tribunal, some stakeholders had also warned the government that replacing nearly 1,000 part-time referees with 74 full-time tribunal members could result in a 16-month backlog.

MPs and senators also raised concerns about workload and backlog issues during various parliamentary hearings in the spring of 2012.

Rodger Cuzner, a Liberal MP, expressed skepticism on Friday that the government didn't know about the backlog when it was setting up the new tribunal, saying the existing caseload would be one of the most critical components in determining how to set up a new system.

He also pointed out that Kenney is usually details-oriented.

"Here is a guy who completely immerses himself in all the details of his files," he said. "Does it make a lot of sense that he didn't know, even when Murielle Brazeau said the department did, in fact, know about the backlog?"

The Conservatives formed the tribunal ostensibly to create a more efficient appeal process for those denied employment insurance, CPP and old-age security benefits. The new panel was also supposed to save Canadian taxpayers $25 million a year.

Kenney has said he's determined to fix the backlog. On Thursday, he announced the official appointment of 22 new part-time members to the tribunal. The government has also shifted 12 members from the employment insurance section of the tribunal, with its manageable caseload, to the overtaxed CPP and old age security portion.

Earlier this month, the government also used its latest budget bill to remove a requirement in previous legislation to cap the size of the tribunal at 74 full-time staff. It also scrubbed limits on the number of hours part-time tribunal members are allowed to work.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25