OTTAWA — Canada's problematic social security tribunal is in for an overhaul, with a renewed focus on serving the people who challenge federal benefit decisions instead of making them jump through administrative hoops.
In the coming weeks, the federal government says it will implement the first — and easiest — of dozens of recommendations contained in a newly released review of the much-maligned appeals body.
The recommendations include using simpler language in decisions, as well as giving those who use the tribunal the ability to decide how they want their case heard — in person, over the phone or via videoconference.
There are also calls for the tribunal and Employment and Social Development Canada, the department responsible for employment insurance and Canada Pension Plan decisions, to more easily share information so that appellants aren't repeatedly asked to supply information the government already has in their case file.
Above all, the report recommends the tribunal shed its rigorous appeal requirements, take a less formal, "tell-your-story" approach to speed up appeals and make the process less daunting for vulnerable Canadians.
Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who ordered the latest review, said the government's initial actions will focus on making it easier for appellants to navigate the system and on shortening the time it takes to make a decision.
What's more, Duclos said, changes to the tribunal won't be limited to the ideas in the KPMG review, and will borrow from the previous appeals system to ensure "the overarching objective of providing a system which is accountable and meets the needs of Canadians."
The report cautions against the pre-budget recommendation of the House of Commons finance committee to simply revert to the old system. Dismantling the tribunal in favour of the four previous appeals bodies isn't practical or necessary, because many of the required changes can be handled within the current system, the KPMG review said.
The previous Conservative government merged four appeal bodies into one in 2013 in hopes of saving money and streamlining the appeals process.
The KPMG report says federal coffers have saved about $22.6 million annually, but timelines for decisions have skyrocketed to an average 536 days for cases to move through the two levels of appeals, compared with an average of 224 days under the old system. The report also cites a need for resources at the tribunal; a spokesman for Duclos said the Liberals could provide more financial help if that's what's required.
The problems facing the tribunal have been well documented: Employees initially overwhelmed by the volume of work, insufficient workers and resources at launch, and the lack of a proper plan to transition from the old system. Add to that the overall finding of the KPMG report, which is that the previous Conservative government designed the system without the appellants in mind.
James Hicks, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said a first step should be to waive the requirement for appellants to have legal representation — something KPMG recommends in its report. Other steps should all be aimed at simplifying the appeals process, Hicks said.
"They have to look at the process, they have to not have such long waiting periods," Hicks said. "The reality is people can't wait to get their money and they're usually going through enough strife as it is."
Alison Schmidt, a Regina-based pension disability case manager and a vocal critic of the system, said she and other case managers agree with the report's recommendations, and are looking forward to upcoming stakeholder meetings with Duclos to finalize the future of the tribunal.
"This whole process was implemented without any stakeholder involvement," she said.
"It's important that they reach out to meet with stakeholders...to have a tribunal that serves the needs of Canadians navigating the system."
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press