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Feds deciding fate of benefits tribunal

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OTTAWA—Federal cabinet ministers soon will decide whether and how to reform the oft-maligned tribunal Canadians use to appeal federal benefits rulings, potentially undoing changes made six years ago intended to make it work better.

The Social Security Tribunal hears appeals of government decisions on things like eligibility for Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan.

It replaced four separate bodies in 2013.

One key change was cutting the number of people hearing most cases from three to one. Another was to replace part-time hearing officials in many places with full-time staff in fewer locations.

A report last year from consulting firm KPMG estimated the moves saved about $22.6 million a year. But timelines for decisions also spiked as the tribunal was undermanned and overwhelmed with cases—and didn't have a proper transition plan.

The KPMG report argued the tribunal wasn't designed with the appellants in mind.

Labour and employer groups each have told the government they want a return to the system as it existed before the tribunal's creation.

Still, KPMG warned against a return to that old system, saying the current one could be improved without a total makeover.

Officials now are expected to ask ministers to consider partially reverting to the three-person panels that once heard cases, or to go with a hybrid system of old and new or simply make tweaks, say sources with knowledge of the recommendations, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss issues under cabinet review.

A spokesman for Social Development minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the minister's office couldn't speak to, or verify the authenticity of, documents related to matters of cabinet confidences, which are closely-guarded government secrets legally protected from unauthorized release.

In the fall, Duclos asked the new chairman of the tribunal to create a “client-centric culture” to make appeals move quickly and transparently.

The tribunal now allows people to choose whether to have their hearings in person, on the phone, or by videoconference. Rule changes also have made it easier to launch an appeal and waiting times have dropped.

The backlog of cases has fallen from about 7,250 in April 2017 to 3,925 at the end of last year.

The tribunal has made “a lot of progress but there is still more to do,” chairman Paul Alterman said in a public post earlier this month.

Over the last few months, the government held closed-door consultations with stakeholders, labour and employers groups, as well as experts who offered six options for officials to mull over before presenting them to cabinet.

Sources described how officials talked about improving the qualifications of people hearing appeals, including whether to have multi-member panels for disability claims involving complicated medical histories.

There was a sense that officials, including Duclos, were taking the ideas seriously.

Stakeholders say a benefit of the previous system was that people had their cases heard in their communities by people who understood the lie of the land locally.

When someone talked about conditions at a particular company, for instance, the panellists knew what they were talking about.

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the previous system was fair and equitable for workers. The Liberals, he said, will have a “terrible time” explaining any decision other than a return of the three-person panels.

“We have no foundation to make any argument to keep that [tribunal] system based on the experience of our members and, to a large extent, what the unemployed have had to experience,” Yussuff said.

Monique Moreau, vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said her members want any changes aimed at getting people through the system quickly, and in a way that makes them feel comfortable, as well as ensuring employers feel represented.

“We were actually fans of the previous system and I think some of the changes that have come in the newer model, they haven't really lived up to expectations,” Moreau said.

Officials likely are to label a return in any way to the old system as the most expensive option for the government to consider.

Tweaks to the tribunal would be the cheapest.

The sources weren't able to put a dollar figure to any of the options being discussed.

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