OTTAWA - The cheques appear to be pouring in for disabled people who have spent years trying to get Canada Pension Plan disability benefits as the Conservative government's so-called spike unit even settles some "questionable" cases.
With a federal election in the offing, advocates for the disabled say the unit's doctors, lawyers and medical adjudicators are plowing through outstanding files and seem to be giving applicants the benefit of the doubt even in iffy cases.
Some who were denied benefits have been waiting as long as five years for their appeals to be heard. Their situation only worsened with the debut of the government's social security tribunal in April 2013.
Although it was designed to streamline the appeals process and cut costs by replacing four separate boards, the backlog of CPP disability cases ballooned during the tribunal's first two years of operation.
Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based pension-disability case manager who's been a vocal critic of the tribunal, says she's delighted that so many of her clients are suddenly getting their benefits.
"I am thrilled, absolutely, that these people finally have justice after spending years having this ordeal hanging over their heads," she said, adding some lost their homes and had to cash in their RRSPs while awaiting benefits.
"But why is it happening now? Because it's looked bad on the government. It's purely political, and it's appalling that it required a looming election to get them to take action."
She adds that even though her clients are elated that their cases have been settled, their joy often gives way to anger that it took the government so long to help them.
A spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada says the department's spike unit is taking a second look at cases and offering settlements to people who are now deemed to meet the CPP disability criteria.
Some of those settlements are the result of appellants providing updated information about their health, said Simon Rivet.
"While we are working expeditiously to address the inventory, all cases are being treated factually and fairly using the existing eligibility criteria of the program," he added in an email.
The department has said it intends to wipe out by this summer the 11,000-case backlog — mostly CPP disability files — plaguing the social security tribunal. The spike unit is working separately from the tribunal itself.
Schmidt says the unit is working at breakneck pace and awarding settlements even in cases that "would have been a tough slog" at the tribunal.
"All of a sudden settlements are coming in on a frantic basis on cases that never would have been settled in the past, on files where you shake your head and say: 'Really?'"
Another advocate, who didn't want to be identified because his clients didn't authorize him to speak publicly about their cases, agreed.
"The cheques are rolling in," said the representative. "They even awarded those whose entitlements might have been considered questionable."
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