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Most who contest benefits decisions win their appeals, tribunal says

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OTTAWA - The majority of ailing Canadians who have appealed an initial decision to deny them Canada Pension Plan disability benefits have won their appeals, the country's new social security tribunal says.

The panel provided hard data Thursday after facing accusations that it had suddenly stopped tracking whether appeals were being allowed or dismissed, despite doing so as recently as May.

In documents dated Aug. 11, obtained via the Access to Information Act and provided to The Canadian Press, the federal employment ministry said it "does not track" the results of appeals held via a variety of different formats, including in-person and video teleconference proceedings.

The tribunal defended itself, saying it simply doesn't break down the numbers according to the different types of hearings.

It did in May, however, providing the results of 178 appeals heard from the tribunal's first day of existence — April 1, 2013 — until Feb. 28th of this year. Those results pertained to various types of hearings and the majority of them appeared to have been dismissed.

A spokesman said the tribunal provided the breakdown in May by doing a "manual count," something it will no longer do because it's "very labour-intensive."

But all told, 933 cases dating from April 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014, were allowed, tribunal spokesman Richard Beaulne said in an email. In the same time period, 303 income-security cases were dismissed, he added.

The tribunal was created to provide a more efficient appeal process for employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan and old age security decisions. The Conservatives said the new system would save taxpayers $25 million annually.

With fewer than 70 full-time members, the tribunal took over thousands of appeals of income-security cases from an old board of part-time referees. Most of those cases involve Canadians who were denied CPP disability benefits.

The tribunal is dealing with an ever-swelling backlog of more than 10,000 ongoing appeals, the documents show. The head of the tribunal, Murielle Brazeau, recently alerted Employment Minister Jason Kenney that the panel is struggling to manage the caseload.

In response, Kenney's office said Thursday it's authorizing the tribunal's hiring of 22 additional part-time employees. Kenney spokesman Nick Koolsbergen said the new hires would help to eliminate the backlog.

Allison Schmidt, a Regina-based disability claims advocate and consultant, says she's suspicious of the government's fresh figures given what appears to be a much higher dismissal rate from April 2013 to Feb. 24, 2014.

The NDP also said the government has previously said it cannot provide such numbers, including when responding to order paper questions in the House of Commons in the spring.

The Conservatives also said they weren't tracking wait times. Some Canadians have complained they've waited as long as a year to have their appeals heard.

Under federal regulations, the tribunal must make a decision on the cases or schedule an appeal after 365 days.

"Given the magnitude of the backlog, the tribunal will not be able to assign all those cases without delay," Brazeau wrote recently to Kenney of cases that were nearing the 365-day mark.

Jinny Sims, the NDP's immigration critic, says Canadians who already suffering are being further victimized by the system.

"If they don't already have mental health issues, they certainly might by the end of the process," she said. "They are being forced to wait for months due to the backlog. The new system is really adding to the pain for our most vulnerable citizens."

She also mocked the tribunal's defence that it was difficult to track the results of appeals because it's "labour-intensive," saying in the age of technology, such tracking should be simple.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25

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