On Groundhog Day, the Auditor General emerged from his hole to reveal the mystical secrets of just what the government has been screwing up recently. In seven reports, Auditor General Michael Ferguson raised issues ranging from the Border Services Agency’s failure to inspect dangerous shipments, to Shared Services Canada knocking out Saskatchewan’s emergency radio network. In the end, the one that got everyone’s attention was the report on the Canada Pension Plan Disability benefit, and in particular, it’s fatally long appeals process.
In his report, the Auditor General stated that Employment and Social Development Canada – the department that actually processes applications for the Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPPD) benefit – actually met it’s guidelines. It has been processing most first-time applications and reconsiderations for CPPD within 120 days. This is only impressive when one considers that the standard application for the CPPD is 42 pages long and designed to take several months to complete. Since April 2013, applicants twice refused by the department have been able to appeal to the Social Security Tribunal, which has not been so prompt, to say the very least. The Auditor General’s report reveals that the average wait time for a decision from the tribunal is 884 days. This is only 239 days longer than the standard gestation period of an African elephant.
While media and politicians pounced on the long applications and wait times, it became clear that there must be some more sinister implications to these long wait times. For example, what of the individuals in critical condition, defined as “gravely ill” (death expected) or as “terminally ill” (death expected “within a short period of time”) by the government. Surely in emergency cases, when it’s life or death, the tribunal must be meeting it’s deadlines. After all, ambulance response times are measured and enforced, how different is this really? It turns out that it’s very different. The guidelines state that Employment and Social Development Canada should respond to applications in 48 hours or less for people with “terminal conditions” and within 30 days for the “gravely ill”, according to their website. Unfortunately, Auditor General Michael Ferguson, ever the bearer of bad news, reported that only 7% of applications by the “terminally ill” were processed on time. More than 40% of applications by the “gravely ill” also took longer than the prescribed time to be processed. If you are an ambulance driver, you may want to stop for coffee next time you’re responding to a call. Clearly, as long as you meet your deadlines at least 7% of the time, nobody is going to notice.
Upon reading this, one becomes seriously curious as to whether or not people are actually dying while waiting for their benefits. The cartoonish idea of a government that is so slow and choked by bureaucracy, that people die while waiting for basic services, may have become a reality. While the Auditor General’s Report to Parliament does not contain any documented cases of someone dying while waiting for their application to be processed, the CPP website contains a disturbingly detailed section entitled, “What if you die before your application for CPP disability benefits is received”.
At this point in the story, some people throw up their hands and say “Aha! I told you the government destroys everything it touches! Why do we need so much bureaucracy, and just to process the wastrel wretches leeching off my tax dollar?” That’s a cool story Bro, but it’s not quite true. The CPP is contributory, so even to be eligible for CPPD benefits one has to have worked for four out of the past six years and met the contribution minimums. The CPP is a form of social security, but it is not a free handout. Everyone receiving these benefits has either paid into the system or has been a spouse or child of someone who did. A long time ago, Canadians decided that in this country, hard-working people, incapacitated by a disease beyond their control, and willing to pay into the program in advance, would be taken care of for as long as necessary. This is a basic service, and we now know that the rather expensive mechanism for it’s delivery is a bloated, busted-up piece of junk. Certainly, our Parliament must have come prepared to work to discuss how to fix it.
Of course, being children, none of our parliamentarians were really able to stay on topic long enough to get into the horrifying details of how badly the service has become. The Leader of the Opposition, Rona Ambrose opened Question Period by accusing the government of colluding with union bosses who were somehow supposed to benefit from the proposed (but not really) carbon tax. She claimed that union members were paid to attend Liberal events, a shocking accusation. It would be a more unsettling accusation were Canadians not so used to this kind of misdemeanour. The word Robocall springs to mind. Rona could have blamed the government for the poor performance attested to by the Auditor General, after all she later claimed that Stephen Harper had left the government in surplus and that the current government was solely responsible for the deficit. As always, in Parliament, even where members can either make good arguments, or at least consistently make bad ones, they fail.
Incompetence ruled the day as various members accused one another of misconduct during the campaign. The Prime Minister went so far as to claim “The Liberal Party has always obeyed the laws of Elections Canada.” I sincerely hope he is not actually that naive. Conservative James Bezan, proceeded to lecture the Minister of Defence – a veteran of the war in Afghanistan – as to just how hard-fought the struggle there was. The NDP stayed a little bit more on task, but when David Christofferson rose, shouting like George Kostanza’s father, he was whining most loudly of all about “data left unsecured”. No mention of the appalling 7% of applications processed on time for the terminally ill. It seems that it wasn’t just Justin who was not ready. He spoke for the entire house when he said “Obviously, we have much to learn from the Auditor General’s Report.” Translated into English that means: “Obviously, we have not read the Auditor General’s Report.”
As Michael Ferguson heads back into his burrow to dig up some more dirt on our government agencies, the direction of Parliament’s attention is clear. As ever, their gaze is fixed most firmly upon their own navels, so for those literally dying while waiting for the CPPD benefit, there will be six more weeks of winter at the very least.