POLITICS

Baloney Meter: Was government really blindsided by tribunal backlog?

12/04/2014 07:30 EST | Updated 02/03/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - "I am told that the pension appeals board did not share information on their backlog, their inventory, with (Human Resources Skills Development Canada) at the time that we transitioned to the social security tribunal, so this was an unexpected legacy backlog." — Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney in a parliamentary committee hearing on Nov. 27, 2014.

The Conservative government has been under fire in recent weeks for a growing backlog of 11,000 social security cases, most involving ailing or injured Canadians denied Canada Pension Plan disability benefits and waiting for their appeals to be heard.

Those in a holding pattern include terminal cancer patients and Canadians in such dire financial straits that they're contemplating suicide, according to social security tribunal "crisis files" obtained via the Access to Information Act.

Was the government really unaware of the true extent of the existing backlog, even as it set up a new appeals system and made decisions on how to allocate staff and resources to its new tribunal?

Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of "no baloney" to "full of baloney" (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of "some baloney" — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing

THE FACTS

The social security tribunal was launched on April 1, 2013.

The goal was to streamline the social security appeals process with 74 full-time members, and to save taxpayers $25 million a year by replacing four separate boards with a single panel.

Those boards employed 1,000 part-time referees to hear appeals from people denied employment insurance, CPP disability and old-age security benefits. Most of the 1,000 referees under the old system were dismissed when the new tribunal was established.

In testimony before various parliamentary committees over the past two years, government officials have said they determined that 74 full-time tribunal members and some part-time staffers could sufficiently replace those 1,000 part-timers after assessing caseloads under the old system.

As far back as 2009-10, there was a 1,000-case backlog of CPP disability cases, according to a report by the office of the commissioner of review tribunals.

And in the annual report of the Canada Pension Plan for the past two years, there's been evidence the backlog has been growing. The review tribunals office received 5,297 CPP disability appeals in 2012-2013, but held just 3,201 hearings.

The numbers were similar in 2011-12.

Some Canadians have waited as long as five years to have their appeals heard.

WHAT THEY SAY

"The department knows which cases are before the tribunal and how many are before the tribunal because when there's an appeal, they're notified," said Philippe Rabot, who was commissioner of review tribunals from 2005 to 2010.

"They are appeals of their decisions, after all, so of course they're notified. We had a protocol in place for the exchange of information with the department once every three months. We exchanged statistical information with the department regularly."

There's nothing to suggest that protocol ceased to exist after his departure, Rabot added.

Benoit Long, an assistant deputy minister at Employment and Social Development (formerly HRDC), was asked at a Senate committee hearing last month if the backlog problem existed prior to 2013.

"There would have been backlogs, yes," he said.

But Long added that the initial transfer to the new tribunal of 7,000 cases was "much higher than anticipated."

"Volume started to increase and activities started to decrease given the fact that there was a transition from one tribunal to another," he testified.

"That led to a significant number of cases that were transferred over to the tribunal, much higher than anticipated. That means that, when the tribunal started, it obviously had to start with a very large volume initially while it was still trying to ramp up, get organized and get set up."

Another department official, Eric Giguere, added: "There were backlogs, but not to this extent." Productivity levels were falling in the old system as the transition to the new tribunal approached, he reiterated.

A spokesperson for Kenney, however, said both men were testifying with the benefit of hindsight, insisting the department didn't know about the extent of the backlog when it launched the new tribunal.

David Dewhirst, a retired civil servant who represented the government for years at social security hearings, is skeptical.

"To say they didn't know is so high on the baloney meter that it defies logic," said Dewhirst.

"Everyone knew there were tremendous numbers in the backlog, all departments knew, and this information is filtered up to the minister. Everybody was aware that when 'D-Day' came, there was going to be a significant backlog, especially since everyone knew the number of appeals being heard was slowing down in the final year."

He added that case management was "impeccable" under the old system, and that caseload information was routinely passed along to the department.

And even if officials weren't getting up-to-date caseload information from those in the old system as they set up the new one, he added, "wouldn't a competent government ask those questions?"

THE VERDICT

Kenney may very well have been "dismayed" to learn about the size of the backlog when being briefed about the social security tribunal when he took over the department from Diane Finley in the summer of 2013.

But officials in his own department have testified publicly that a backlog already existed prior to the launch of the tribunal, although they say department officials didn't know how hefty it was. Canada Pension Plan statistics also show a pre-existing backlog of disability appeals.

A longtime government representative at tribunal hearings also says the government was always kept abreast of caseload. So too does a former commissioner of review tribunals.

For these reasons, Kenney's statement that the backlog was "unexpected" and that the government wasn't told about the backlogged cases contains "some baloney."

METHODOLOGY

The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

No baloney — the statement is completely accurate

A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required

Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing

A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth

Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate

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SOURCES

Testimony to the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, Wednesday, Nov. 5:

http://www.parl.gc.ca/sencommitteebusiness/Notice.aspx?parl=41&ses=2&comm_id=1013&Language=E&meeting_id=400568

Testimony to the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, May 17, 2012

http://openparliament.ca/committees/finance/41-1/60/?page=13

David Dewhirst, former Service Canada official employed contractually as a government representative at social security review tribunals for Service Canada

Annual Report of the Canada Pension Plan, 2012-2013 and 2011-2012:

http://www.esdc.gc.ca/en/reports/pension/cpp_reports/2013/cpp_report.page

http://www.esdc.gc.ca/en/reports/pension/cpp_reports/2012/cpp_report.page?#h2.4

Annual Report of the Office of the Commissioner or Review Tribunal, 2008-2009: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2013/bctr-ocrt/HS55-2009-eng.pdf