OTTAWA - The federal government announced two years ago it was creating a streamlined social security tribunal that would save Canadian taxpayers $25 million a year, but some well-paid new members had nothing to do during its first year of operation.
"The tribunal — the one that was supposed to save money — had 30-40 people making $100,000 a year sitting at home that first year," Philippe Rabot, the commissioner of review tribunals from 2005 to 2010, said in an interview.
"They had no work assigned to them for a year. It wasn't their fault. The department simply wasn't ready on April 1, 2013. They didn't have enough lead time to set up such a big tribunal, and the tribunal wasn't ready to start assigning cases."
Some of the decision-makers who worked in the old system were brought onto the new tribunal by the department that was then known as Human Resources and Social Development. Rabot is familiar with the launch period.
A former tribunal member who left the board confirmed there was little to do in the early days.
A spokesman for the tribunal, however, says the new appointees were being trained or mentored by "more experienced members."
"Furthermore, members worked on becoming more proficient with our new case management system that allowed them to move from paper to electronic files," Laura Revilien said in an email.
Meantime, terminal cancer patients, those suffering debilitating injuries and debt-addled Canadians waited for their appeals to be heard. Some have now waited as long as five years amid a growing backlog of 11,000 social security cases, mostly involving those seeking Canada Pension Plan disability benefits.
One of them only just won his appeal after a four-year battle. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suffered a stroke and was ultimately unable to work due to related health issues.
"My wife and I did manage, and we're not starving by any means, but I've been having to dip into my RRSPs to keep above water and that shouldn't be," said the former construction worker, who fears having his award withheld in retaliation for speaking out.
The man says when he received word that he'd won, the tribunal made reference to "recent" information about his health. That information was sent to the government almost two years ago, he said in astonishment.
In its first year, the social security tribunal concluded just 461 hearings on appeals from people denied CPP disability and old-age security benefits — and most of those appeals were dismissed.
That's compared to thousands of hearings held the previous year under the old regime and despite an ever-ballooning backlog.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney has pointed to a "rigorous pre-screening process" for new members and an "unexpected legacy backlog" in explaining how the pileup has grown so large. His office recently hired 22 part-timers to help 73 full-time tribunal members wrestle with the backlog.
But the tribunal was seriously under-staffed its first year, with several full-time positions remaining vacant until this summer, more than a year after its official launch.
The full-time members earn between $97,000 to $114,000 a year. If 30-40 of them were idle in the first year of operation, that amounts to millions of dollars in wasted salary expenses.
In written responses to questions from Liberal MPs earlier this year, the government revealed that almost $12 million of its $13.6-million price tag in the tribunal's first year of operation in fact went to salaries.
Longtime stakeholders suggest the government had ulterior motives in slowing down the appeals process.
"Those who successfully appeal do not receive any interest on the years of retroactive benefits," says one lawyer who asked for anonymity because he represents dozens of clients who are awaiting decisions on their appeals and he fears government reprisals.
"The government keeps it. There's the incentive to not be in any rush to adjudicate cases; they used the stalled system to earn money. Let's not forget the new prosperity presently being enjoyed by the government."
The tribunal's "notice of readiness" system also contributed further to the backlog, the lawyer said.
The system was put in place on the first day of the tribunal, when Kenney says the government first learned of more than 6,000 backlogged cases inherited from the former system.
It required appellants to sign a document within 365 days indicating they'd file no additional submissions and were ready to proceed with their appeal. Allison Schmidt, a disability claims case manager based in Saskatchewan, warned her clients against signing it.
"They could have signed it, had a stroke the next day and then not been able to submit that critical information to the tribunal," she said.
Failing to sign it, however, delayed their appeals indefinitely, adding to the backlog bloat under the new system.
And the tribunal — buried under a mountain of paperwork by March 2014 as appellants submitted more supporting documents to meet the 365-day "notice of readiness" deadline — gave up on the system, saying it wasn't working.
The lawyer suspects the abandoned system was aimed at grinding the appeals process to a halt.
"They set it up immediately to avoid scheduling hearings," he said. "They knew the social security tribunal was not ready to hear appeals and this was the way to avoid having to hold any. In the meantime, they were making investment income on funds that weren't being awarded."
The Canada Pension Plan has net assets of more than $180 billion from contributions and returns on investments.
In an emailed response, the tribunal didn't immediately comment on whether new members didn't have cases assigned to them in the early months of the social security tribunal's existence.
But a spokesman said the formation of the tribunal "created administrative efficiencies, which has resulted in ongoing administrative savings."
Simon Rivet added: "There are no additional savings associated with the payment of benefits. Clients will continue to receive all benefits to which they are entitled."
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