12/01/2014 11:28 EST | Updated 01/31/2015 05:59 EST

Kathleen Wynne: Computer Glitch Behind Erroneous Welfare Cheques

TORONTO - A computer foul-up that had the Ontario government scrambling to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in overpayments to people on welfare and disability supports was just a "glitch," Premier Kathleen Wynne said Monday.

"There was a glitch and within 24 hours most of the problems were rectified," said Wynne. "There's a small number of cheques still being dealt with."

The problem stemmed from the new $240-million Social Assistance Management System (SAMS), which last week erroneously queued up $20 million in welfare and disability support overpayments.

"As I understand it, 99 per cent of those situations have been rectified where there was a problem," said Wynne. "Just over 100 cheques are still being corrected."

There were overpayments to about 17,000 people that averaged $1,100 each, but most were direct deposits and easily fixed, said Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek. The government is still trying to contact 119 people who got overpayments, but the minister couldn't say how much money was involved at this point.

"I'm afraid I don't have that exact figure," said Jaczek.

A spokeswoman for the minister said on the weekend that about $300,000 in mistaken payments had yet to be retrieved.

During question period, interim Progressive Conservative Leader Jim Wilson accused Wynne of downplaying problems with the overpayments and of ignoring warnings from government workers that the new system was too complicated and would not be ready to go online this fall.

"I don't believe you, and I don't think anyone believes, that 99 per cent of the problem is fixed at this point," said Wilson. "Why did you buy an expensive program that doesn't appear to work from the get-go, and why are you moving forward to defend this when it's just going to turn out to be another Liberal scandal?"

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union warned the government last summer that staff were having difficulties with the new SAMS computer system and it would not be ready to launch this fall.

"The system itself is flawed," said OPSEU president Smokey Thomas. "That's the part that gets me because our workers were telling them all along that it doesn't work."

The New Democrats said the Liberal government cannot manage computer system upgrades properly, pointing to problems at eHealth Ontario and at the Family Responsibility Office, which administers court-ordered support payments.

"The Liberals' new software program is causing chaos for clients and staff," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "How could the premier sign off on a quarter-billion-dollar lemon, frankly, having been warned in advance that it could turn into a nightmare for our province's most vulnerable?"

The welfare and social disability offices' needed a new computer to send out over 500,000 payments a month, and it will also free up staff so they can provide more direct services to support recipients, said Wynne.

"The fact is, there was an outdated system in place that needed to be upgraded," she said. "We needed to have in place a system that was going to allow front-line workers, caseworkers, to have more time with their clients."

The Conservatives asked the government to have a legislative committee call front line welfare and disability case workers to testify about the computer problems, claiming Jaczek was "inaccurate" in her previous assurances about the new system.

"They gave us the brush-off," said PC critic Randy Hillier. "Let's start getting some real answers from some real people who are using the system and also those who are dependent on the system."

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