Social services concerns led requests for help from Sask. ombudsman in 2022: report

·5 min read
The office of Saskatchewan's ombudsman received 3,656 requests for assistance last year, according to its latest report. Of those, 2,701 fell within the office's jurisdiction.  (Germain Wilson/CBC - image credit)
The office of Saskatchewan's ombudsman received 3,656 requests for assistance last year, according to its latest report. Of those, 2,701 fell within the office's jurisdiction. (Germain Wilson/CBC - image credit)

An 81-year-old woman fleeing war in Ukraine was initially denied benefits from the Ministry of Social Services after settling in Saskatchewan last year, according to the latest annual report from the provincial ombudsman.

Her case was among the 3,656 requests for assistance the Saskatchewan's ombudsman's office received in 2022, with each representing an individual person and specific circumstance, says the report, which was released Thursday.

The woman from Ukraine applied for the Saskatchewan Income Support program, which can be accessed by people who are in the country under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel program, the ombudsman's report says.

After being denied, she called the ombudsman's office and was encouraged to appeal.

The Social Services Ministry found a mistake was made when the person processing the claim used an outdated policy manual, it said. The issue was resolved within two days.

Ombudsman Sharon Pratchler told CBC News the cases she included in her 2022 report are "representative of a number of other files" and point to broader trends.

"Part of our role is really to shine a light on those areas and demonstrate this is something that needs attention," Pratchler said.

Of the 3,656 requests for assistance filed with the ombudsman, 2,701 files fell within the office's jurisdiction.

Social Services received the most complaints last year, with 691, the bulk of which were about income and disability benefits.

"They want to be heard, first of all, and they also want a timely response," Pratchler said.

Last year, 95 per cent of files were resolved within 90 days and 97 per cent were resolved within 180 days.

Man waits year for benefits decision

One man in Saskatchewan waited more than a year for Social Services to decide on his eligibility for benefits to heat his home, the report says.

The man filed a claim under the Saskatchewan Income Support program to use a wood stove as an alternative source of heat, according to the report, which noted he resubmitted paperwork four times — as requested by the ministry — to no avail.

The man, who does not have internet access, also had trouble reaching someone at the Social Services client service centre, waiting hours only to be disconnected, says the report.

Social Services did make a decision, once the ombudsman's office called.

"Even though [the ministry] got it right, he still had to go through a winter without the benefit," Pratchler said.

"At the end of the day, how was he made to feel? He was frustrated because, 'Why did I have to go to the ombudsman?' People like to have autonomy when dealing with their issues."

Alexander Quon/CBC
Alexander Quon/CBC

The man was eligible for monthly benefits of $130, and was owed $1,950 from the day he was first eligible. Social Services did not provide an explanation to the ombudsman for the year-long delay.

Another case noted in the report described how a woman, who hadn't accessed the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability program in years, was assessed as owing $400 in arrears.

Once the ombudsman's office called Social Services, it was determined an "entry error" had been made when the woman's SAID file was closed.

While the issue was resolved within 24 hours of that call, the woman had previously tried three times to resolve the matter herself. There was no reason given for why those attempts weren't successful, the report said.

36,000 homes rely on assistance: minister

In a statement to CBC News, the Saskatchewan Party government acknowledged the ombudsman's work, adding ministry staff interact with the office daily to "address client complaints and resolve matters quickly and informally."

"We appreciate the collaboration to consult on cases and issues, work toward solutions, and pursue continuous improvement," the province said.

Ombudsman complaints specific to the Social Services ministry have increased year over year, according to the report, from 554 to 691 from 2020 to 2022.

We do our best to be as fair to the individuals ... but at the same time, these are taxpayers' dollars that we have to be cognizant of. - Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky

On Thursday, Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky noted there are 36,000 households in Saskatchewan receiving income assistance.

"So there, on occasion, will be touchpoints where … there is a change in circumstance, and people are working through that," Makowsky said.

"We do our best to be as fair to the individuals that we deal with, but at the same time, these are taxpayers' dollars that we have to be cognisant of."

Makowky noted additional funding in the latest provincial budget has been earmarked for more client centre staff.

"We've come up with 10 positions because we've listened and heard that there are some challenges with waiting on the phone to deal with some of these things," he said.

Person behind every number: NDP

Meara Conway, the Opposition NDP's Social Services critic, said she is concerned, but not surprised, by the complaints made to the ombudsman's office.

Lengthy delays can have profound, possibly even fatal, consequences for people accessing benefits, she said.

"We have to remember [that] behind every number there is an individual for whom the stakes are very high," Conway said.

"A lot of people don't take it as far as to go to the ombudsman.… These folks are juggling a lot. They're on the margins. They're really thinking about surviving."

Conway said the top two areas for ombudsman complaints in 2022 — Social Services and Corrections  — are overrepresented with those vulnerable people and Indigenous people.

"The government really needs to be getting to work addressing some of these barriers," she said, adding staff burnout is another important factor in improving the system.

Alexander Quon/CBC
Alexander Quon/CBC

More than 3,000 requests to the ombudsman's office in 2022 were received by phone, the report said. Nearly 500 were submitted through an internet form, 50 by email, and 27 by letter. There were 33 were walk-ins.

Regina and southeast Saskatchewan accounted for the most ombudsman complaints with 327, followed closely by Saskatoon and west central Saskatchewan with 309.

The east central region, including Prince Albert, Melfort, Humboldt and Watrous, accounted for 277 requests in 2022.

There were 532 requests for assistance from correctional centres, which are not included in regional data.

According to the report, for the 955 files that fell outside the office's jurisdiction, individuals were provided referrals to help them find an appropriate option.