11/07/2016 15:10 EST | Updated 11/08/2017 00:12 EST

Alberta auditor general sharply criticizes aid program for severely handicapped

EDMONTON — Alberta's auditor general says the government is failing the severely disabled through its income supports program.

Auditor General Merwan Saher, in a report issued Monday, says the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program is rife with duplication, roadblocks, subjective decision-making, and failing quality control.

"I don't doubt that the 330 staff administering the program are doing their best, but if you step back and look at the whole, it's as if the system doesn't care," Saher told reporters.

"Operational management of the AISH program is failing. (And) I believe ministerial oversight is failing."

Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir said he accepts and will implement Saher's recommendations.

He said his department has already begun to fix the problems and has launched a new online application program that is easier to navigate and understand.

"There was work in progress for a while now," Sabir told reporters.

"We've asked our department to look into these issues and make it more accessible (and) user friendly."

He said it's been a challenge given they inherited long-standing problems from the previous Progressive Conservative government.

"(It was) a broken ship," he said.

Wildrose Human Services critic Angela Pitt said the NDP government needs to take a hard look at its own performance.

“Clearly, after 18 months in power, the NDP has brought in little accountability to ensure those most in need receive funding," said Pitt.

The AISH program provides living allowances for those who demonstrate their disability impedes them from earning a living.

Applicants submit a form and supporting documents to see if they're eligible.

Saher's department reviewed operations earlier this year.

It found the online resources were hard to find, the application form was onerous to fill out. Key information was missing. Questions asked in one form were essentially repeated in others.

There were other findings:

— staff were not properly trained

— there was no agreement on the cutoff economic threshold, leading to subjective decisions to accept or reject applications

— the system to monitor performance was inadequate

Saher said one troubling statistic was that more than 40 per cent of applicants rejected in the pre-screening process were found to be eligible if they fought for the money through the appeals process.

"(That) indicates to me that something is not working properly," said Saher.

The AISH program provides almost $1 billion a year in benefits each year to more than 50,000 people. The annual operating cost is $33 million.

The main financial benefit is a monthly living allowance up to $1,588, although other benefits are available.