February 19, 2015 - 1:00 PM
OTTAWA - Dozens of gravely ill or financially strapped Canadians denied Canada Pension Plan disability benefits were refused accelerated appeals in 2014 by Ottawa's badly backlogged social security tribunal.
The backlog plaguing the tribunal has swelled dramatically since its launch almost two years ago, with thousands of injured or ailing Canadians now waiting as long as five years to have their appeals heard.
In 2014, 46 people asked for an expedited appeal due to financial hardship. Only seven were successful, the government reveals in responses to recent written questions from the NDP.
Eleven people sought expedited hearings in 2014 due to terminal illnesses. Four were turned down while seven were successful.
On Thursday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair chastised the Conservatives during question period, accusing them of victimizing already vulnerable Canadians by refusing to grant accelerated hearings as wait times continue to worsen.
Pierre Poilievre, the new employment minister, responded by saying the government was on track to eliminate the backlog by this summer.
His predecessor, Jason Kenney, announced a plan earlier this month to wipe out the backlog within months.
"We agree that the backlog is unacceptable," Poilievre said.
"We are using experts within the department to review all of the cases that are under appeal to see if we can settle as many of them as humanly possible so that they don't even have to go before the tribunal at all."
Richard Beaulne, a spokesman for the tribunal, called it an "unfortunate reality" that most appellants experience financial hardship.
"But the tribunal would consider expediting such cases where the appellants are able to show exceptional financial hardship sufficient to justify assigning their case ahead of other appellants," he said in an email.
"The tribunal expedites the assignment of cases involving terminal illness only when requesters have provided the proper medical documentation to support their request."
The written responses also reveal that only three of the 63 people currently assigned to hear CPP disability cases are health-care professionals.
Under the old system, one person on each three-member panel had to be a health-care professional to ensure that appellants with disabilities received a fair hearing from someone who understood medical evidence.
Other responses show that the tribunal's backlog currently stands at 11,230 cases. That's a 24 per cent increase since February 2014.
The vast majority of those cases — 90 per cent — involve people seeking CPP disability benefits. Some of them have been waiting years for their appeals to be heard.
The tribunal, consisting of 74 full-time members and 22 part-timers, has been under a cloud of controversy since its inception in April 2013.
In addition to the ballooning backlog of cases, the government-in-council appointments to the tribunal have also been contentious. A third of them have ties to the Conservative party.
The government says the tribunal was established to streamline the appeals process and save Canadian taxpayers $25 million a year.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2015