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Fewer hearings held by new social security tribunal; dismissal rate high

OTTAWA - In its first year of existence, the federal government's new social security tribunal concluded just 461 hearings on appeals from people denied Canada Pension Plan disability and old-age security benefits — and most of those appeals were dismissed.

That's compared to thousands of hearings held the previous year under the old regime and despite a growing backlog of more than 10,000 outstanding appeals.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney's office recently announced 22 new part-time hires for the tribunal to help it deal with the backlog. It began its work on April 1, 2013, but was seriously under-staffed its first year, with several full-time positions remaining vacant until last month.

Richard Beaulne, a spokesman for the tribunal, said the new panel "managed to conclude" almost 1,600 appeals on Canada Pension Plan and old age security cases from its first day until June 30 of this year.

But Beaulne says just 461 were decisions resulting from actual hearings; the majority of the 1,592 appeals were agreements between all parties that the tribunal "reviewed and approved."

In the 461 hearings, 158 appeals were approved and 303 were dismissed, the tribunal said.

The new body was ostensibly created to provide a more efficient appeal process for employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan and old-age security decisions. The Conservatives said the new system would save taxpayers $25 million annually.

Fewer than 70 full-time appointees on the tribunal — several of whom donated money to the Conservative party, public records show — took over thousands of appeals from an old board of part-time members. Most of those cases involve people who were denied CPP disability benefits.

Joanne Fisher, of South River, Ont., recently had her appeal dismissed after four years of trying to get CPP disability benefits. She has a heart condition and chronic back and neck issues stemming from lifelong scoliosis.

"I had doctors writing letters on my behalf," said Fisher, 48. "They turned me down because they said I couldn't prove that I could no longer work."

Jinny Sims, the NDP employment critic, said she wonders how many people, faced with ever-increasing wait times, may simply be walking away from efforts to get benefits from a system they've paid into for years.

"Maybe this government is just trying to drive people away because it wants to cut costs — how many people are just giving up?" Sims said.

"This tribunal was set up because it was going to streamline and speed everything up and it has actually done the opposite. And it's also made our most vulnerable people more vulnerable. We're not talking about people who can go out and strongly advocate for themselves."

Beaulne, however, suggested things are looking up for the tribunal now that it has passed its one-year birthday.

"During this first year, parties were allowed a new, 365-day period, provided by the regulations, during which they could file additional documents. Only if both parties signalled that they had no more documents to file and that they were ready to proceed could the tribunal hear the case," he said.

"Now that the transferred files are deemed ready to proceed, our hearing rate will increase significantly."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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