OTTAWA - The federal government's new Social Security Tribunal is significantly cheaper than the system it replaced 18 months ago, but 87 per cent of its $13.6-million price tag in its first year went to salaries.
Responses to written questions from Liberal MPs reveal that in 2013-14, the badly backlogged tribunal heard just 1,782 appeals from ailing, disabled and unemployed people who were denied employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan and old-age security benefits.
That's more than 1,000 fewer appeals than were heard on average annually under the previous regime. The tribunal has been straining under a growing backlog of more than 10,000 outstanding appeals and wasn't fully staffed until this summer.
With its $13.6 million budget, the new tribunal has lived up to the government's insistence that it would save taxpayers more than $20 million a year.
In the year before the tribunal's creation, the four boards it replaced cost $33.8 million and that was down from $42.4 million in 2010-2011.
But $11.8 million of the new tribunal's costs went to the salaries of about 70 full-time tribunal members and other staff, all while the backlog continued to swell.
In its responses to Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, the government also revealed the tribunal was created without any studies to justify the need for it.
When asked about the tribunal's "ongoing cost and efficiency savings and the supporting rationale," an official at Employment and Social Development Canada outlined how the government hoped to slash costs.
Among the cost-cutting objectives was a 25-per-cent reduction in the number of appeals heard, the official wrote.
The responses also reveal that since the inception of the tribunal in April 2013, there's been no development of standards concerning the timely scheduling of appeals.
The government also said it couldn't provide any information about negative feedback it may have received from stakeholders.
"No audit, evaluation or review documents were prepared or conducted on the SST to date," the official wrote.
Cuzner said the responses weren't surprising.
"I guess this is the result when you establish a program without any plan, without any study and push it through via an omnibus piece of legislation where a committee can't study it and provide any recommendations or assess any potential impact," he said in an interview.
"This government has done a lot of dumb and wasteful things, but $11 million in salaries to process so few appeals in its first 14 months of its existence? This is inflicting hardship on vulnerable Canadians."
Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based disability claims advocate, said the government's responses show the tribunal is in disarray and focused on saving money above all.
"At whose expense is this money being saved?" Schmidt asked in an interview.
"It all makes for a very grim and discouraging situation for vulnerable Canadians who have no other financial support but to apply for a benefit they may be qualified for due to contributions made to CPP for the majority of their working years."
An official for Employment and Social Development said the tribunal "operates at arm's-length from the department."
He added that more than half the full-time members are working on reducing the backlog and the tribunal will hire another 22 part-timers this fall to help with the backlog.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25