An Alberta man dying of lung and rectal cancer has been seeking Canada Pension Plan disability benefits for 18 months after being told by officials that he doesn't qualify because his condition isn't serious enough.
Peter McClure, 62, is now caught up in the massive backlog plaguing the federal government's social security tribunal, and says he received no response to his request for an expedited appeal hearing.
"You do not have a disability that is both severe and prolonged as defined under the CPP legislation," McClure was told in a letter from Service Canada in August 2013 after he applied for CPP disability.
"I sent a letter back saying: 'Here's the catch, I may not be here in a year,"' he said, asking for an expedited appeal hearing due to his worsening condition.
McClure's plight began when he contacted Service Canada after being first diagnosed with rectal cancer in the fall of 2012. He says Service Canada told him to apply early for his CPP retirement benefits since he was still not technically disabled.
CPP retirement benefits only pay him about $500 a month, about a third of what he'd receive under CPP disability.
"I felt very much like I was being hit up by a used-car salesman," said McClure, who was working in industrial sales when he received the diagnosis.
"They said: 'If you take your CPP, you'll get it right away. But if you wait until you're disabled, you might not actually qualify, and you might not get it.' There was this sales pitch — 'Take your CPP now, because you'll get it sooner.'
"I had no idea what to do; I just took their advice."
McClure also said he wasn't told that when his condition deteriorated — he was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer as well as rectal cancer — he wouldn't be able to switch over to the more generous CPP disability benefits because he was already getting CPP retirement cheques.
Meantime, his wife has been laid off, leaving the couple financially strapped as McClure fights for his life.
"They should be ashamed of themselves for treating people this way," he said. "Whether there is a technicality or not, this is unjust, unfair, and they should be ashamed of themselves."
The former fitness and aquafit instructor said he decided to go public to shame the federal government, which has vowed to eliminate the tribunal's 11,000-case backlog by this summer.
Even though McClure said he had copied Health Minister Rona Ambrose's office in on his exchanges with the tribunal for months, he didn't hear from her office until he began telling his story publicly.
Spruce Grove is in Ambrose's riding, but her office wouldn't comment earlier this week when asked what she's doing to help. McClure said he called Ambrose's office on Monday and was told they'd "keep me posted."
Neither the social security tribunal nor the Employment and Social Development department will comment on specific cases.
But a spokesman for the department said in an email that eligibility for CPP disability benefits "is based on legislative criteria that are applied by departmental staff after careful assessment of many factors, including detailed medical information from the individual's treating physicians."
The plight of people like McClure has apparently caught the eye of auditor general Michael Ferguson, whose fall report will explore the issue of CPP disability.
"The work is ongoing, and any details regarding our scope, progress and methodology will not be discussed while the work is ongoing," a spokesman for the auditor general said in an email Wednesday.
Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner said he was heartened by the development.
"Most people see it was poorly planned, poorly implemented, and thousands have been waiting months or years for benefits," Cuzner said.
"Hopefully the auditor general will expose the lack of planning that went into this ... the AG review will be important."
CPP disability benefits have been the biggest trouble spot for the social security tribunal as thousands of ailing or injured people initially denied benefits wait years for their appeals to be heard.
The government launched its new tribunal in April 2013, ostensibly to save money and streamline the social-security appeals process by replacing four separate panels. But during the first year of operation, the backlog ballooned.