OTTAWA — The federal government is reviewing the operations and design of the social security tribunal, the subject of long-standing complaints about interminable delays and red tape since it was launched four years ago.
The tribunal, which allows people to appeal decisions about benefit payments, was plagued at its birth by staffing problems and a lack of resources that have snowballed into, in some cases, years-long waits for decisions.
Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who has been fielding demands for action from a Commons committee and frustrated stakeholders, said the government has been hearing calls to make the system simpler, more transparent and more responsive to the needs of Canadians.
Duclos said the review will be complete by the end of the year and will look at a "broad spectrum of possible changes" to improve the tribunal's work. Duclos wouldn't say if the government is looking to scrap the tribunal.
"We're going to move forward," he said in an interview. "It's always important to improve to move forward to get better over time."
The tribunal adjudicates cases where people believe they've been wrongly denied benefits such as employment insurance, old age security and Canada Pension Plan payments. The tribunal replaced four bodies that had handled appeals prior to 2013.
The former Conservative government set up the tribunal, arguing it would streamline the appeals process and save millions of dollars.
But a steady stream of reviews and audits have shown that things have been anything but smooth.
An outside review ordered by the tribunal three years ago found stressed-out, error-prone employees who were overwhelmed by the volume of work, a result of not having enough bodies and resources at launch.
Last year, the federal auditor general said the previous Conservative government didn't craft a proper plan to transition from the old system to the one now in place, which resulted in decision wait times for CPP disability cases of 884 days on average and a backlog of thousands of cases.
The tribunal has, in the last year, moved to make its decisions publicly available, simplify forms and its website and update its case management system to better help staff manage the 8,213 cases the tribunal had in its overall inventory as of Dec. 31. The Liberals have also appointed more than 30 tribunal members to prevent another backlog and keep cases moving through the system.
A Commons committee called for a review of the tribunal last year, followed by a similar recommendation from a panel of MPs that Duclos tasked with reviewing services to employment insurance recipients.
Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based, pension-disability case manager who regularly deals with the tribunal, said wait times for hearings and decisions have come down, but are still too long for those applying for disability benefits.
"The process is way too challenging for an individual with a disability to manage," Schmidt said. "That's what I think is a big flaw. The tribunal folks themselves are doing their very best with what they've got."
Michael Prince, a public policy professor at the University of Victoria who was a critic of how the previous government set up the tribunal, said the Liberals are likely to find that the tribunal needs to be radically reformed — tinkering is not enough.
"Whether (Duclos) decides to scrap it or not, I think it's drifted quite badly off course," Prince said.
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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press