Jason Kenney is vowing that by this summer, he'll eliminate the massive caseload backlog that's left thousands of ailing or injured Canadians waiting years for appeals after being denied Canada Pension Plan disability benefits.
In a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, the employment and social development minister describes a "two-part action plan" to wipe out the backlog at Ottawa's beleaguered social security tribunal in just a few months.
"The inventory of appeals, and the wait times for them to be considered, has grown to an unacceptable level," Kenney wrote in the letter sent Friday to the chairman of the standing committee on human resources.
"I have not been satisfied with the progress that has been made to date."
A team of federal government lawyers began reviewing appeals applications in December on an expedited basis and started making settlement offers, Kenney writes. As a result, the government is on track to eliminate the 11,000-case backlog for those seeking CPP disability benefits by summer.
Kenney says he's also working to put service standards in place to improve the tribunal, which was supposed to streamline the appeals process for Canadians seeking employment insurance, old-age security or CPP disability benefits.
"The adoption of these standards will help to prevent the accumulation of a backlog in the future, and will ensure that Canadians have access to a fast and fair appeals process, while maintaining the independence of the SST and the high quality of its decisions," the letter reads.
Terminal cancer patients, organ-transplant recipients and suicidal, debt-addled Canadians are among the thousands of people who have been forced to wait years to have their appeals heard.
The tribunal has been under a cloud of controversy since it began in April 2013. The backlog swelled significantly in its first year of operation; Kenney said that's because the new tribunal inherited an "unexpected" backlog of more than 7,000 cases from the old system.
He also pointed to a 12-month "rigorous pre-screening process" for appointees to the new tribunal.
Those government-in-council appointees were also contentious. An analysis obtained by The Canadian Press found that a third of them have ties to the Conservative party, despite Kenney's insistence that he avoided patronage appointments.
Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based pension-disability case manager who's been a vocal critic of the tribunal, called it "high time" that the government acted to eliminate the "intolerable" backlog, although she praised Kenney for his efforts.
"But why did it take so long for the government to take this action when so many disabled and ailing Canadians continued to suffer?" she said, dubbing the backlog a "national disgrace" given so many disabled Canadians have been affected.
New Democrat critic Jinny Sims sounded a cautious note about Kenney's pledge.
"It's good to see Mr. Kenney deciding to finally clean up his own mess," Sims said in an email. "We want the backlog gone but not at the expense of more Canadians being denied due process and services."
The tribunal consists of 74 full-time members and 22 part-timers. It replaced about 1,000 part-time referees on four separate social security panels under the old system.