Auditor slams delays, arduous, outdated paperwork process for disability appeals

Canadians with terminal illnesses are waiting too long for disability pension benefits from the federal government, and those with grave conditions are being snowed under with paperwork, Canada's auditor general says.

OTTAWA — Canadians with terminal illnesses are waiting too long for disability pension benefits from the federal government, and those with grave conditions are being snowed under with paperwork, Canada’s auditor general says.

In his latest twice-annual assessment of various federal government departments, agencies and programs, Michael Ferguson’s most eyebrow-raising findings came from his examination of how Ottawa parcels out Canada Pension Plan disability benefits and deals with disputed denials.

While the audit found no documented cases of patients dying while waiting for benefits, it did find that guidelines for decisions weren’t always being met.

A mere seven per cent of terminally ill people applying for Canadan Pension Plan disability payments got a decision on their application within the government’s 48-hour guideline, while just over half of those with chronic conditions had their cases decided on within the established 30-day window.

Getting to that point takes months and mountains of paperwork, an unnecessary burden that auditors say could be eliminated and put online, such as is already the case with employment insurance.

Once inside the system, auditors found the department had little in the way of a quality assurance system to make sure that decisions were consistent. The audit found that one-third of applicants originally denied disability benefits were later found to be eligible, raising questions about why they were denied in the first place.

If denied a second time by the department, applicants would then turn to the tribunal, which was established in 2013 in an effort to eliminate a growing backlog of cases. Instead, Canadians waited an average of 884 days for the tribunal to make a decision.

That ledt to the government setting up a triage unit in the department to deal with cases — a unit whose mandate has no end in sight — all because the new tribunal had been set up without consulting officials who ran the previous appeals system. As a result, the the tribunal was left understaffed and under-resourced to deal with a backlog of more than 6,500 cases at its inception — a backlog that had swelled to 10,871 cases by December 2014.

In one case cited in the audit, the tribunal accidentally dropped a request for a speedier hearing from a patient with terminal cancer. Even though the tribunal eventually denied disability benefits on non-medical grounds, the person “had to wait longer than necessary for a decision,” auditors found.

The critical review of the benefits system was one of seven audits released by Ferguson’s office Tuesday that illustrate what Ferguson characterized as good intentions falling short of their mark.

Auditors were critical of the government’s central IT department, known as Shared Services Canada, which spends about $1.9 billion annually to oversee services to 43 of the heaviest IT users in the federal government.

The audit found that Shared Services Canada couldn’t show whether it was saving the government any money, nor whether systems and data were secure.

The audit found Shared Services Canada knowingly went ahead in February 2015 with the first wave of a new, unified email system for the federal government that had two high-security risks that were mitigated in July 2015.

In many cases, the audit found, agencies and departments that work with Shared Services Canada had little involvement with the IT department, and didn’t communicate on expectations.

That kind of disconnect was at the heart of an incident in Saskatchewan in March 2014 when every first responder in the province lost radio contact for 40 minutes. Shared Services Canada rendered a critical feature of the radio network unavailable during an upgrade, forcing some 9,000 police officers, fire officials and paramedics to use their personal cellphones to communicate — made tougher by sporadic and non-existent coverage in some remote communities.

Had Shared Services checked with the RCMP and local responders about the network upgrade, auditors said the outage could have been avoided.

Ferguson also found that 20 years after vowing to assess how legislation and programs affect men and women, the federal government had made limited progress on that front. Ferguson’s auditors found gender-based analyses were not always complete or consistent across departments.

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