OTTAWA - Terminal cancer patients, organ-transplant recipients and suicidal, debt-addled Canadians are among the 11,000 people waiting to have their appeals heard by Ottawa's badly backlogged social security tribunal.
Some of those awaiting a decision on their eligibility for benefits, including people with debilitating injuries, have had their cases expedited due to severely declining health.
Others, however, have waited years — some are still waiting — to hear whether the initial decision to deny them Canada Pension Plan disability benefits will be overturned.
Given the nature of their illnesses, a decision may come too late.
"I prayed for patience and every day it came to me and I believed I would finally get what was rightfully mine," said Terry Petrow, 62, a former grocery executive suffering a severe back condition that has consistently worsened after an accident when he was in his 20s.
Petrow, who is undergoing back surgery soon, was finally granted benefits last month after waiting almost five years to have his appeal heard. He's grateful his wife's income kept the couple afloat during the ordeal.
"Thank God for that," Petrow said Monday in an interview from his Manitoba home. "I can't imagine how terrible it would be to endure the financial horror stories I've heard other people are experiencing in this system."
Federal government data obtained under the Access to Information Act shows 58 per cent of Canadians who applied for disability benefits last year were denied. The tribunal says that 68 per cent of appeals are successful.
In the tribunal's first 18 months of operation, the backlog of CPP disability and old-age security cases has increased by almost 50 per cent.
Jason Kenney, the employment and social development minister, has promised to shrink the backlog of cases, saying the new tribunal didn't expect to inherit more than 6,000 cases left outstanding from the old system.
The tribunal has also hired an outside consulting firm to help it come up with a plan to deal with the pileup, and additional staff has been brought on to wrestle with the ever-growing number of cases.
Petrow credits his representative throughout the appeal process — Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based pension-disability case manager — for navigating a complex system.
"I only have one word to describe Allison, and that is 'angel.'"
That "angel," meantime, has been receiving letters from the tribunal suggesting that she is "unauthorized" to help CPP disability applicants make appeals to the new panel under law society rules and regulations that differ from province to province.
In Ontario, for example, a representative must be a lawyer or a paralegal. Other provincial law societies have no such requirements.
"Members of the tribunal may refuse to proceed with the hearing upon discovering that a representative is unauthorized," reads one letter to Schmidt from a tribunal administrator, suggesting she could be reported to various law societies for her work.
"In such cases, the hearing may be adjourned and a final decision on the appeal file could be significantly delayed."
Schmidt, a vocal critic of the government's new tribunal, has been appearing at CPP disability hearings for almost two decades on behalf of disabled Canadians, but she is neither a lawyer nor a paralegal. Her company employs a paralegal, however, who represents clients in Ontario during various stages of the appeal process.
In a blog post published Monday, Schmidt suggested the tribunal is targeting her.
"In recent months, the work that I do, as well as other dedicated advocates in Canada, is coming under attack by the bureaucrats at the social security tribunal," she wrote.
The tribunal, meantime, says it was simply making sure representatives were aware of the regulations in various provinces in advance of upcoming hearings in order to prevent potential delays.
In an interview Monday, Schmidt said requirements to hire lawyers or paralegals add even further hardship to Canadians waiting for their appeals to be heard — they're already financially strapped, she pointed out, given they've been denied CPP disability benefits for years.
"Who can afford to hire a lawyer when you're in dire financial straits as it is?" said Schmidt, who says her rates are substantially less than lawyers or paralegals.
She often doesn't bill for travel if she knows her clients are in deep debt, she added.
"Many of these individuals lack the ability to meet the basic necessities of life and their medical needs. Their families' security and stability is threatened at its core."
Among the cases considered "crisis files" by the tribunal are numerous people who have asked for their cases to be expedited due to terminal illness or financial hardship. Most of the terminally ill have had their appeals expedited, the documents indicate, but not all of those claiming financial hardship did.
"Appellant is past due on bills, has a large debt load with various banks/credit cards, medical documents support possible suicide," reads a description of one appellant in government documents obtained under the Access to Information Act.
That appeal was expedited and heard in June. It wasn't clear if a decision has been made.
Another claimant is described as "having no income for the last two years and is getting calls from collection agencies." The tribunal asked the woman to submit documents to substantiate her claim; her appeal was not expedited.
Another appellant in dire financial straits had to enlist his MP to write a letter on his behalf urging his case be expedited. It was, with a hearing held in October.
The MP's party affiliation wasn't specified in the documents.
Tribunal spokesman Richard Beaulne said the panel "acknowledges the difficult situation" for many appellants.
"Unfortunately, many other appellants are experiencing similar challenges, and it would not be fair to accelerate others' appeals, as this would further delay the appeals of other appellants who have been waiting longer for their appeal to proceed," he added in an email.
"However, if a situation becomes worse for an appellant, they are always welcome to submit a new request to expedite their cases."
Stu Lang, another appellant with a debilitating knee injury who finally won his appeal in September after a five-year battle, says he's "disgusted" by the process.
Lang, 62, said he resents having to pay tax on the five years of benefits that will soon be paid to him.
"That is money I have already given the government, and that I am entitled to, and now I have to pay the government again in taxes."
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25