Terminally ill and disabled Canadians are bogged down in paper work and delays of up to 800 days when applying for vital disability payments, warns a new report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday by the federal auditor general.

The problem is being exacerbated by an aging population suffering from more disabilities, the report said.

“In 2014-2015, as the backlog issues grew worse with the addition of new appeals, the average time it took to get a decision on an appeal exceeded 800 days,” said auditor general Michael Ferguson on Tuesday. “That’s more than twice the average time required three years prior. Close to three years after its creation, the tribunal continues to struggle with providing timely decisions for applicants.”

Claimants are facing the delays despite the government committing in 2002 to process applications for terminally ill Canadians within 48 hours. In 2013, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) - which runs the program – made an additional commitment to process applicants suffering from ‘grave conditions’ – illnesses likely to cause disability or death – within 30 days, according to Tuesday’s report. In cases where grave conditions are also terminal, the 48-hour deadline applies.

Ferguson also noted that a new appeal process, created in 2013 to speed up applications, was failing to clear the backlog.

According to Ferguson, the new process had failed as it had less employees and more case files than anticipated. As a result, only 6.5 cases on average are being processed each month, not the hoped-for 29, according to Ferguson.

The report urged Employment and Social Development Canada – the department charged with handling CPP disability applications – to establish specific standards for processing applications from claimants suffering from both terminal illnesses and grave conditions.

The government replied that it is working on a solution to the issues outlined in the report.

Overall, about 330,000 disabled people had received $4 billion in disability from the federal government in 2013-2014, up from 282,000 people who received $2.5 billion in 2000-2001.

However, the report warns that filling out a paper application can take months, a process made even more difficult for anyone suffering from mobility issues or impaired vision.

As well as being difficult for applicants, Ferguson’s report warns that the paper trail is an administrative burden on staff, contrasting it with programs such as Employment Insurance that offer online services.

“Moreover, the date on which the department receives an application affects when the benefit begins, so delays in completing an application affects when the benefit begins, so delays in completing an application may result in the applicant’s loss of several monthly payments,” stated the report.

Employment and Social Development Canada also committed to fix this problem, stating in the report that it would modernize its benefit services and potentially offer online services for applicants.

“Employment and Social Development Canada recognizes the importance of regularly consulting with applicants and beneficiaries to identify ways to improve the Canada Pension Plan Disability program,” the department said in the audit.

NDP MP David Christopherson said the state of disability payments was indicative of the previous government's lack of concern for both diability and old age security claimants.

"It looks like it was designed to fail," said Christopherson.

Other report highlights

The auditor general’s report also highlighted the following issues:

  • The government’s new super IT agency has been plagued by delays, security risks, incomplete accounting, hidden costs, and at least one critical system failure that call into question whether it will actually save taxpayers’ money.
  • The Department of National Defence is plowing millions into military housing without properly assessing the need. Nor did it consider how the private housing market could meet the needs of Canadian Forces members.
  • Canadian women are still losing out two decades after the federal government first promised to account for gender in its decision making.
  • Organized crime is enjoying a potential payday in Canada as border officers are not always able to stop potential illegal exports of goods. The report warned that the Canada Border Services Agency did not have everything it needed in carrying out its duties, resulting in some goods violating Canadian export control laws leaving the country.
  • Ottawa is failing to consistently uphold the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. Fisheries and housing remain ongoing headaches for local Indigenous people and the government. The report warns that failure to meet agreement obligations puts the federal government at risk of legal action.
  • Airport screening officers need more training to keep air travellers safe, but their parent organization – the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority – otherwise received a clean bill of health.
  • Canada’s tourist industry is in safe hands thanks to the able work of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
  • A new model of healthcare that places British Columbian First Nations leadership front and centre is an emerging Canadian innovation.

Keep reading