01/31/2016 15:20 EST | Updated 01/31/2017 00:12 EST

No end in sight for 'spike unit' helping social security tribunal

A special group assigned to help deal with a massive backlog of appeals around employment insurance and other social security benefits isn't winding down anytime soon.

The so-called spike unit was set up in the fall of 2014 to triage the cases that began piling up after the Conservative government launched the Social Security Tribunal of Canada in April 2013.

The tribunal was supposed to streamline the appeals process for Canadians who argued they had been wrongly denied employment insurance, Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan payments. The Tories also argued the tribunal would save taxpayers $25 million a year.

The 50-member spike unit — comprised of doctors, lawyers and medical adjudicators — has since gone through more than 11,000 tribunal appeals and come to settlements on almost 3,000 of them. Still, the new government has yet to wind down the unit.

Employment and Social Development Canada said the team is still reviewing new cases to help the tribunal "maintain a manageable caseload."

"There are no plans at this time for this work to discontinue," spokesman Josh Bueckert said in an email.

Documents tabled in Parliament this week in response to a written question from NDP MP Cheryl Hardcastle say the government hasn't made a decision on "the end date of the unit."

The response from Employment and Social Development Canada noted the unit didn't cost the department any extra dollars.

But the department did provide a dollar figure in a July 2014 briefing note to then employment minister Jason Kenney: $600,000, found within existing budgets, to have the unit in place from September 2014 until March 2015.

The NDP obtained a copy of the document under the Access to Information Act and provided it to The Canadian Press.

Hardcastle, the party's disabilities critic, said Friday that she's heard from advocates and those who have gone through the system. She said that if the tribunal remains understaffed and overwhelmed, any resources directed to the spike unit should be invested in the tribunal itself.

Until then, "it's vulnerable Canadians that pay the price," she said.

"These are Canadians living without income. They can't wait any longer for the government to get its act together."

Auditor General Michael Ferguson will release his audit Tuesday of how Canada Pension Plan Disability benefit applications are dealt with, as well as how the tribunal dealt with appeals.

The disability pension payments make up almost 11 per cent of all payments under the Canada Pension Plan — amounting to an estimated $3.4 billion in payments during the 2014-15 fiscal year, based on calculations of publicly available figures from Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees the social security system.

The figures provided to Hardcastle show the tribunal handled almost 4,200 appeals last year from Canadians applying for CPP disability payments, with almost 5,600 cases in the queue.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press