Ms Sandy Lang: I will just take a moment and introduce the colleagues I brought with me today. My name is Sandy Lang. I'm Deputy Minister of Community and Social Services. I have with me today Kevin Costante, the assistant deputy minister responsible for social assistance programs; Mary Kardos-Burton, the director of our social assistance programs branch; and Barb Saunders, area manager for our Toronto area office.
Ms Lang: Thank you, Mr Chair, I would. Good morning to the committee and to the Chair. I'd like to take a few minutes to provide some context for my remarks today and set the stage for a short overview of the initiatives introduced by the government in the last year, give you some insights into the major reforms that the government is contemplating in the social assistance system and update you on the action plans taken to date to address the issues raised by the Provincial Auditor in his report.
First let me confirm that as a ministry we are in total agreement with the recommendations of the auditor. We believe that the independent review provided through his office is a healthy process for us and leads to improvements in service and accountability. We have also indicated earlier, and we'll talk about it a bit more, that we have taken some of the necessary steps already to implement the recommendations contained in his report.
Let me outline some of the initiatives that have been introduced in the last year. To do that, though, I think it's important that the committee understand that in 1995 the province spent $6.4 billion on social assistance. In the current fiscal year, social assistance spending is estimated at about $5.6 billion, which represents a reduction of about 12.5%. This reduction, we believe, can be attributed to the government's initiatives towards reform in welfare. We also have an outline of the government's policy agenda to do some very significant fundamental reform of the social assistance system in the province.
In August last year a number of changes were introduced to tighten eligibility and reduce fraud. For example, 16- and 17-year-olds who leave home must now meet enhanced conditions to receive welfare. If they don't meet these conditions, they do not get welfare.
Last October, government also changed the social assistance base rates. The rates were reduced for some recipients to about 10% above the average of the other nine provinces. Rates for seniors and adults with disabilities were protected.
Just to outline a few of those reforms for you, we are currently actively pursuing a technology and re-engineering contract to replace a very outmoded what's known as CIMS and MAIN, which is the computer system that currently supports the administration of social assistance in the province.
On the policy side, the government has stated very clearly their objective for social assistance reform to help as many people as possible get off welfare and into employment. For people with disabilities and seniors, it will mean moving them out of the welfare system and into an income support plan.
As you are aware, we're also implementing the Ontario Works program, which is being phased in community by community. The first phase includes 20 communities, and it is expected that the program will be implemented province-wide by 1998.
The second part of the reform is related to moving people with disabilities and seniors off the welfare system. It is expected that people with disabilities and seniors will be better served under an income support plan by addressing their unique needs and improving their benefits.
As you are well aware, many people with disabilities can and do want to work. In fact, people with disabilities will be supported to participate in training and employment if they wish. We are currently working with staff in other key ministries to ensure that the range of supports and services are much more accessible and delivered as efficiently as possible.
The auditor reported, and I quote, "During the past two years, the ministry has undergone a major change in direction by introducing certain initiatives designed to strengthen the administration of the program."
The auditor also noted, "As a result of concerns noted in our 1992 report and a renewed emphasis on ensuring that only eligible individuals receive assistance and that the assistance is in the appropriate amount, the ministry introduced the `enhanced verification' process in mid-1994."
A primary observation in this year's auditor's report flowing from the audit of the family benefits program was that the ministry's administrative procedures require significant strengthening to ensure that the legislative requirements and program policies and procedures are complied with.
Specifically, the auditor has informed us that the administration of the social assistance program needs strengthening in the following areas: staffing, case flow follow-up, identification and collection of overpayments, child support documentation re waivers, information sharing and fraud prevention and home repairs.
On the subject of staffing the auditor recommended that the ministry establish and adhere to reasonable workload standards to enable case workers to perform their work more satisfactorily. We've been working to maintain the integrity of the program and our ability to manage caseloads.
Between 1989 and 1995 the ministry hired just over 1,000 new FBA staff. During that same period our caseloads increased by about 147,000. However, as I mentioned previously, new initiatives and an improving economy have reversed the trend towards ever-increasing caseloads. FBA caseloads have been decreasing over the last 12 months from a high of 331,000 to 314,000 in September. This represents a 17,000-case reduction, and in that period of time we have not reduced any staff as a result of those reductions.
While the ministry isn't considering increasing the number of staff, it is working to improve its technology and business processes as a means to assist staff with caseload management and service delivery. In addition, through the social assistance reform process future workload standards and service levels will be reviewed as we move towards the full implementation of social assistance reform.
On client case file follow-up the auditor recommended that income maintenance supervisors review a sample of case files to ensure case file standards are being met. In his report the auditor noted that many case files did not have adequate verification or documentation to establish initial or ongoing eligibility.
Our ministry already has in place what is known as the enhanced verification initiative, or EV for short. This initiative tightened eligibility requirements and included new and tougher standards for verification of information supporting eligibility. The EV process is a regular part of our day-to-day practices across the province. Our case workers are continuing to work through all files to ensure that the necessary information to document eligibility and entitlement criteria is included.
We have more than 50 staff deployed across the province to monitor these processes. The ministry has provided appropriate training, and a standardized monitoring guide is now in use. Ministry area offices are expected to produce action plans to address non-compliance and provide reports on their activities to our corporate offices.
Finally, income maintenance supervisors reviewing files to ensure appropriate follow-up and updating of case file information has been completed. The ministry has introduced training for our income maintenance supervisors which includes file review training on cases which are processed by income maintenance officers. Most income maintenance supervisors have now received this training, and the rest will be completed shortly.
Identification and collection of overpayments: From his review of overpayments, the auditor recommended that the ministry improve its overpayment recovery efforts in both active and inactive cases. The auditor also raised concerns about the limited amount of documentation on file regarding the reasons and circumstances of the overpayments.
We recognize that the system needs to be fixed to address the long-standing problem of overpayments. I want to emphasize that we are taking steps to try to eliminate overpayments from occurring in the first place.
Overpayments due to error or fraud will be reduced through new technologies and changes to our administrative practices, which include better upfront detection and better reporting mechanisms for our clients.
The ministry has taken steps to improve practices such as updating client files and recording any changes on a regular basis. We will strengthen the requirements for staff for file documentation on overpayments.
We are looking at our current policies to see where improvements can be made to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the debt collection process for recovering overpayments on active cases. For inactive cases, Management Board has also established a new process for the collection of overpayments. Our ministry is taking part in developing that new process.
Child support and documentation of waivers: The auditor raised a number of concerns about child support waivers. Specifically he was concerned that files with child or family support waivers did not contain enough documentation outlining the reasons for the waivers, nor were the waivers regularly reviewed.
Ministry policy allows a case worker to waive a recipient's obligation to pursue child support in special circumstances. Such cases would include a situation where the spouse might be incarcerated or where a spouse is likely to become physically violent if support is pursued.
Information sharing and fraud prevention: The Provincial Auditor recommended that the ministry be more proactive in identifying cases at high risk of fraud and that information sharing agreements with other jurisdictions should be completed. I believe the ministry has shown it is committed to reducing fraud in the social assistance system.
We believe, as does the Provincial Auditor, that we have a responsibility to ensure the integrity of the social assistance system. To this end we have taken a number of steps to further deter or eliminate fraud. I have referenced many of these earlier in my text. However, I'd like to describe a few more.
We have more than 130 eligibility review officers working for the ministry across the province and another 200 working for the municipalities whose sole function is to investigate and pursue fraudulent activity.
The ministry also has a welfare hotline and central fraud unit, which was announced in August 1995. For the period of August to September, the welfare fraud hotline received a total of 25,730 calls. Of these calls, 17,096 were fraud allegations.
We have recently signed agreements with Manitoba and with the federal government concerning the employment insurance program. In addition, we are working on 15 other information-sharing agreements. These agreements will enhance our efforts to verify eligibility for social assistance and to prevent double-dipping.
While we're making significant progress, we're still phasing in a number of these additional agreements in the coming year, and that can be a fairly lengthy process, I might add. The exchange of personal information must be negotiated within the bounds of complex program and privacy legislation of both parties. Tape-matching activities require a formal assessment by the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
As well, differing levels and types of technology support must be considered when working out the method of information exchange. In particular, significant care must be taken to ensure that exchanges are conducted in a cost-effective and secure manner that protects individual privacy.
The area of home repairs: The last area I want to cover is the Provincial Auditor's recommendation that the administration clarify the terms used to define emergency home repairs to ensure costs for major repairs are reasonable and supported by invoices.
Emergency home repairs are allowed for under a long-standing policy that permits recipients who own their homes to complete emergency repairs. However, the auditor's report cited deficiencies in the way the policy was being carried out and gave examples of repairs being approved without proper documentation, in questionable situations, and of repair work not being inspected as required.
As recommended, my ministry is clarifying the terms "urgent emergency repairs" and "owned-occupied premises" to assist our field workers in making consistent decisions on these requests. When approving estimates or invoices on high-cost and complex repairs, staff will consider calling on specialized expertise to confirm the exact cost and the necessity of the repairs.
In closing, I want to express the ministry's appreciation for the work done by the Provincial Auditor in the family benefits area. We believe that the service we provide the people needing help in this province is of high standard. However, we recognize the need for continued improvement.
I get an impression that you're putting an awful lot of effort and resources into the back end of social assistance after the payments are out the door, in terms of fraud detection etc. I think all those are excellent moves.
I'm wondering, with respect to the early verification process, do you have sufficient safeguards in place as to the need to put so many resources at the back end of the operation to detect fraud and other abuses or lack of consistent policy application?
I understand there's something like 15 or 16 criteria needed in order to be eligible. Are there any absolute minimum essential criteria before you have the granting of any social assistance? For example, is it three or four or six, and is the social insurance number one of those before anybody is authorized to provide a social assistance package?
My second question is related to the auditor's points over the years as to the information technology you're putting in place. For example, it's noted that disability payments are being made and people are getting social assistance simultaneously, from the 1992 report. I notice as well that the family support plan, with our reforms there, is looking at new technology. I'm wondering to what extent integrated technology is going on. Have you got networked, or is each system talking to itself? That could even relate it to Canada pension. If you're going to get all this stuff and getting overcollection, are we putting into place the right technologies today that are integrated?
Just in terms of the criteria, the 14 or 16 I think you mentioned -- it's actually 18 -- with the enhanced verification process, we did attempt to put that in place in all new cases. The auditor was somewhat concerned about the fact that we hadn't managed to complete all of the cases that were already on the system, but every new case must go through the enhanced verification process. Certainly Kevin or Mary can elaborate on what's involved in that. I think they can also give you some specific response about your question on social insurance, because I'm not 100% sure.
Before I turn it over to them, I'd like to respond generally to the technology question as well. We are, in the province, very much trying to get our major information systems as a network and integrated. There is a great deal of work going on with Management Board and the ministries to look at how we might create an infrastructure across all government systems in the province.
In addition to that, we are engaged in designing the new information systems in a way that they can readily adapt to change. The problem we have with our current system, quite frankly, is that it's done in an old mainframe way and the programming is unbelievably complicated. It takes a lot of time and doesn't adapt to change. When you're dealing with human resource programs as we are, I think you need to have a system that is much more adaptable to change and able to accommodate the varying needs of the policies or the regulatory shifts that come with various governments' policy agendas.
On the subject of the family support plan, we do now have that, antiquated, but none the less an attempted way to share information between the two systems, because we enjoy a significant sharing of caseload, and it's important that we share information as much as possible. As we design the new system for ourselves and as the family support plan is engaging in looking at its technology, we definitely are trying to make sure as much as is necessary for efficient administration that those information systems will be shared and that there will be a capacity within the confines of privacy to share information as much as possible.
Mr Kevin Costante: On the enhanced verification, the standards that we introduced in 1994 we believe are among the most stringent across the country. These standards are in addition to what a client must do in order to prove initial eligibility for the program, ie, they must prove they're in financial need and they must meet the eligibility criteria specified in the legislation, in the regulations.
Not every one of the 18 things must be in place before eligibility is granted. If somebody comes to us and can prove they're in financial need and they meet the eligibility but they have lost their social insurance number, we record that on file and the case worker then returns to it later to get it. If eventually that is not provided, then the case worker will take steps to find out why and whether there are some problems.
Obviously, we need enough on file to make sure that the person meets the initial eligibility. However, not every one of the 18 must be there. Eventually, we do want them all filled out. There can be some follow-up if certain pieces are missing for a good reason.
In terms of the technology, as the deputy said, we are in the process of putting out new technology. That's coming in several waves. We have over 60 offices where we've put new personal computers for case workers -- it's called case worker technology -- in place. We have also trained our workers on computerization, because they're essentially going from a paper environment into the new technology. The new software that we're using right now does computerize some of the current, very manual, time-consuming processes.
We are looking at an improvement in that software in the coming years that would allow us to have good support for the new programs the deputy described in her opening remarks that the government is committed to in terms of the reform of welfare, but would also provide us with a technology platform or a base where we can, as much as possible, have information from other sources readily available to the case workers. Instead of having to phone the employment insurance office or phone the Canada pension office, we're hoping that we would have electronic linkages with those offices so the case worker could determine right up front whether the person is getting unemployment insurance or not. If they are and it's at a certain level, then they won't get any assistance, as opposed to putting them on and finding out later that they're getting unemployment insurance and then doing overpayments. Our efforts there will very much be to try to make the right and proper determination up front, as opposed to dealing with the problems later.
Mr Steve Gilchrist (Scarborough East): One hardly knows where to start. But, in fairness, Ms Lang, I'd like to think all of us appreciate the sheer size of your ministry. It perhaps mitigates against the same degree of discipline that one might find in other, smaller organizations.
I'd like to follow up on something Mr Hastings said there about investing at the front end instead of the back end. I must admit, coming from the private sector, I'm absolutely flabbergasted that we would have failed to identify at the very outset that this is something being done as a benefit to these recipients. For them to fall back on any kind of concept of privacy, given that this is, really, largess from the other taxpayers, is something I find quite incredible.
Why on earth would we not put in place some kind of a waiver that you sign when you first come in and ask for benefits in the context of sharing, not with the world at large but with other arms of the same government? It absolutely astounds me that there would be any kind of a roadblock with our sharing with other ministries and with the federal government and, in the limited case, I guess, even with municipal governments.
This is not their money, this is the taxpayers' money. I think we have every right to be protected against the sort of abuses Mr Costante just identified. If somebody's already on UIC, there shouldn't be a roadblock for us to be able to verify that immediately. If it's a simple matter of designing a waiver that they say you have a right to consult with all other arms of government, then that strikes me as a very simple thing to do. I can't believe that any person who is honestly in need would have a concern with that because, again, if they're honestly in need, they're not claiming UIC and they're not claiming benefits from some other area and trying to get this.
Hand in hand with that, why also would we not have put in place within our own government the mechanisms already, based on the 1992 report, to ensure that there is just no chance that you could still collect while you're in a penal institution, for example? We heard all sorts of horror stories from the Solicitor General during one of our meetings last year on the previous auditor's report that there are any number of people in prisons right now who are still collecting welfare assistance. I genuinely can't understand how we could countenance that sort of glaring --
Mr Bruce Crozier (Essex South): Good morning. You mentioned in your remarks, and we have a copy of a news release last August, that the 1-800 hotline was set up, and you said there have been some 25,000 calls, of which close to 17,000 were legitimate. What range of calls were the other 8,000 of that?
Mr Costante: Some of the other calls may have been about other income security programs such as unemployment insurance or Canada pension. Also there are a fair number of crank calls or calls where the person is calling and we search the database and we don't have anybody by that name on the database. There's a whole host of reasons why they wouldn't get forwarded.
Mr Crozier: So that 8,000 would include, as you say, the crank calls or people who just simply weren't on your database. Of the 17,000 -- I think you used the word "allegations" -- how many of those have you had the opportunity to follow up and what percentage have been legitimate give you some lead to a problem?
Mr Costante: Once we get a call, of those 17,000, they are then referred out to our offices, both the provincial and municipal welfare offices, to do an investigation, and then they will follow through from there.
We are going to be releasing a report later that we're in the process of putting together that will report on the follow-up from the fraud hotline, so we don't have those statistics here with us today. But we'll be releasing a report later in the fall that talks about the follow-up and outcomes from that follow-up.
Mr Crozier: Thank you. When it comes to that same news release where 16- and 17-year-olds who leave home must meet new conditions to receive welfare, could you give us some idea of how many 16- and 17-year-olds there were before this initiative was taken and how many there have been since that time? In other words, do you feel it has resulted in a reduction in the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who leave home?
Mr Crozier: I want to just for a moment go to the collection, as it was referred to in your remarks, the identification and collection of overpayments. I understand that you can collect from those who are receiving assistance because you simply reduce their cheque. When we go to those who are no longer receiving it, it's being suggested that you were turning it over to -- I think the term was "the professionals"?
Mr Costante: We're currently in the process of working with our colleagues in Management Board who have government-wide responsibility for collections. The intention is that we will be, in conjunction with them, issuing an RFP to get the best price possible and the appropriate procedures around collecting overpayments from inactive clients. I don't think we can give you a figure here today because we don't have a current contract in place.
Ms Lang: If I could just comment on that, Mr Crozier, Management Board currently has a unit that does overpayment collections now, and they do employ staff to do that. The plan is to consolidate all of the government's need for collection and do an RFP out to the private sector and determine if we can get a better deal. So it's not that we're ignoring overpayments; it's just that we're looking at moving from the current structure to a new process for overpayment collection.
Mr Crozier: To what extent, if you would like to comment, would the problem with collection be, for those who are no longer on social assistance, that they simply can't afford to pay it back? I'm not doubting that they owe it to anybody and there's a certain obligation there, but maybe they've moved off social assistance to a job where there isn't any extra money, albeit they may owe it to the government. Do you have any sense of what the problem is there?
Mr Costante: There's no question that's a problem. I think our normal practice in this area is to arrange payment over a period of time so that the government can, even if it's a small amount, eventually recoup the amount of the overpayment. I think we have in the past and will likely continue under any contractual arrangement to be flexible in terms of getting it back, as long as there's a commitment eventually on the part of the former client to repay the government.
Mr Costante: I think the reasons there would rest around the fact that they would have people who work in this all the time, who have knowledge of certain information sources where they could perhaps track down people who don't want to be found in order to make the repayment. It's those sorts of things that they are doing. They may have sophisticated computer systems that have BFs that remind people to go back and check with this person who has promised to make payments. I think the overall piece is that they are professionals, this is their business, and they have the proper supports and technology to do it, whereas we don't.
Mr Crozier: My experience has been -- and not from being a debtor. I should point that out, because I doubt that anyone around this table has had a collection agency attempt to collect from them. But I caution, notwithstanding Mr Gilchrist's feeling that anyone who is on social assistance should waive rights that we have as citizens in a democratic society, that collection agencies can be brutal. They can be offensive. They can work illegally. They can be intrusive. They can hound you.
I think we have to be very careful in the selection of a private collection agency because, after all, we're told, they won't get paid unless they collect a buck. So they won't work for nothing. I think we have to be very careful in the agency that we select that we monitor them and that they are effective but humane in the way they go about it. I really hope we do that, because just because you're in an unfortunate economic situation doesn't mean you need to give up your civil rights.
Mr Gilles Pouliot (Lake Nipigon): I too wish to convey by way of good morning your presence and your diligence not only today but certainly over the years with the resources that you have. Your diligence certainly has not gone unnoticed. Quite the contrary.
I wish to pursue the last comment from my distinguished colleague Mr Crozier because I too am intrigued. While you acquiesce, while you don't deny that the people in terms of collection, overpayments, money that should be coming back to the state, are doing the best they can, people that work under your jurisdiction, your capacity, perhaps by nature of the client, have a 13% or thereabouts success rate in going out there and getting the taxpayers' money back by way of overpayment or in some cases fraud.
I'm not so much concerned about when you make the transition, if you go to the private sector, about the methodology; hence my connection with my colleague. But I'm concerned about the method, about the enforcement aspect of it, about the tactics, the motivator being that when you go and extract the very last penny, and I'm not catastrophizing -- that's true. When your clients are the most vulnerable, the people who can least defend themselves, quite often the people who don't have a voice, and when Miss Jones at 74 years old or 64, by way of an overpayment gets every small stick of furniture in her cubicle taken away by the jackals, I draw the line, because your responsibility is that of a human dimension. So I will echo the sentiment in terms of I'm not so sure that all good deeds by virtue of being free enterprise do it better.
I want to ask you in terms of the snitch line, the rat line, where one is invited under the auspices, the convenience, of anonymity to go after the neighbour. You've had 25,700 and some; allegations, 17,000. You're preparing your report so you can't say now. How many of them have been prosecuted to your knowledge?
Mr Pouliot: So we have a committee here and you plead the fifth. We speak to you with candour, sir. I think, with high respect, you have an obligation. It's not good enough for me. Put yourself in my shoes. I ask a question. It's legitimate and I want this noted in the record and you say, "Well, I can't answer you because the report's coming out." Maybe we should call you back when the report is out. What is it I missed, sir? Why don't you want to answer me?
Ms Lang: I think, Mr Pouliot, if I could answer that question, part of the difficulty in giving you the information is that we are still going through the process of analysing the data. As part of the introduction of the fraud hotline last year there was also the creation of an information collection system so we could in fact determine, as you've asked, what has happened and what is the effectiveness of the system. We are in the throes now of trying to pull that information together, doing the analysis and making available for release a report that outlines the impact and the effectiveness of the hotline. It's not something we have available to us today.
Ms Lang: The Ontario Works program isn't subject to the discussion of the audit today. But just on the introduction of the Ontario Works program, we are now in the throes of implementing it in 20 communities across the province.
The program is designed not only to facilitate people getting into jobs but also to assist people with the skills they need to get jobs. I'm not sure we could indicate that it is totally a job creation program.
Ms Lang: The only thing I can share with you at the moment is, as I indicated in my comments, that over the last year we have seen 99,000 new jobs in the province. What the creation of those jobs can be attributed to I think is for others to answer, not for me to answer.
Mr Pouliot: Over the last month we have seen a net loss of 35,000 jobs, and October does not promise to be better. Personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high, in spite of the so-called -- it's not for you to say, but somebody had promised 725,000 jobs. I guess it's tales of Houdini.
In terms of the workload, and your budget will attest to this, the foot soldiers, the front-liners, people of the first brigade, case workers -- we're asking more and more in terms of vigilance, in terms of screening, and we give them more cases. I don't know what the morale is like. Do people burn out? Do you feel that there is sufficient staff to address the additional requirements?
Ms Lang: As I indicated, we have had an additional 1,000 staff introduced into the program over the last several years, but we have also had the problem of the caseloads increasing. But we do see caseloads going down now, which has provided some relief. As we travel the province and talk with our staff, they are feeling somewhat relieved by that, but they are also excited by the training and the introduction of technology.
I think if you talk to many of the front-line workers who have had the benefit of the technology now, they are saying they're feeling somewhat relieved by the tools being available to them. I would say that on the whole it's feeling better. I'm not wanting, in any way, shape or form, to suggest that they're not feeling still quite overworked, and we're doing everything we can, within the resources available to us, to support them and help them in their work.
Mr Pouliot: I'm sure that some of them, with respect, will wish to share their excitement tomorrow, on this October 25. It all ties in. In terms of expenditure, when you hand out the pink slip -- no one wishes to do this -- how far are you in your staff reductions? How many more people will go out the door out of your overall staff, will be told, "We no longer need you because Big Brother has decreed that you're out the door"? How many more pink slips will you issue, Madam Deputy Minister, in the coming fiscal year?
Ms Lang: As I indicated earlier, we have not reduced any staff in this program. The staff reductions the ministry is contemplating at the moment, as announced last spring, relate to staff who are relieved of their duties as the result of our closing institutions for the developmentally handicapped, which continues to be a long-standing policy of many governments in this province. That is the extent of our staff reductions in the ministry.
Mr Pouliot: You've noted the 12.5% reduction in the budget, from $6.4 billion to $5.6 billion, and a 13.9% caseload reduction. Obviously, by my line of questioning, I know so little about these; there are only 16 of us and we too have several committees and a lot of work to do. When you look at the EI, UI, restrictions, they're focusing more and more and the eligibility criteria are more difficult to fulfil, and I read the disability provision under the CPP too is coming under more intense scrutiny.
This is not trading on the mercantile market, this is not the overnight Asian market. There's a human dimension, and you've addressed it quite well. It's real people. Do you see that 50% of the existing numbers we have now are there to stay? Do you see that 60%, 70% are there to stay? Is it 80% that some would call hard core?
Mr Gilchrist: To finish off my question, Mr Crozier would try and mislead you into believing that somehow this is an assault on civil rights. I trust he is not defending the groups such as the ones the auditor pointed out, 149 Ontario residents eligible to receive assistance in this province who were also claiming in Quebec and therefore scammed one or the other government of $700,000; or the fact that $213 million is outstanding from former recipients, claimed only when the recipient has failed to report changes in personal or family circumstances, not ministry errors. They were written off to the tune of $30 million in the last four years alone and another $142 million outstanding -- $213 million from people who defrauded this government.
In that context, why would we not have in place a waiver from day one that allows us to access any other database you deem necessary, at any level of government, to ensure the integrity of the system?
Mr Costante: First of all, in the legislative environment we work under, we have a piece of legislation that's several decades old, and it doesn't give us the authority to have completely flexible information-sharing. What we do have is a waiver that clients sign when they come on that allows us to investigate individual clients. For example, it does not give us the authority, nor does our legislation give us the authority, to do a tape match with Quebec, where we take all 600,000 people on the Ontario social assistance system and compare them with all however many hundred thousand on the Quebec social assistance system. That requires, under our Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, that we have an information-sharing agreement, which is what we've pursued. Quebec itself also has its own privacy legislation. When you structure these deals, you have to make sure that you're satisfying both privacy laws.
Obviously, as we move forward to new legislation to enable the government's welfare reform act, we'll be looking at enhanced authorities within our own act, new acts that would allow us to do this in a much simpler way.
Mr Gilchrist: My concern is less with the sharing in other jurisdictions. It's far more likely, I submit to you, that someone will be misleading another arm of the Ontario government. Sheer geography would dictate that if most of the people live in the Golden Horseshoe here, we're some distance from Quebec or Manitoba. My concern is more within the Ontario government.
I don't mean to sound combative, but every person I ever hired signed in their application form a waiver that allowed me to research everything they claimed in the context of their application. These people are claiming things in the context of their application for benefits. They're telling you, for example, that they're unemployed. They're telling you that they're not getting UI. They are telling you a number of things. They're telling you that they either own or rent. I really find it incredible that under contract law they have signed a contract with the Ontario government and in the course of that they absolutely have the right -- if you want to call it a right; I even contest that choice of word -- that they have that as a matter of their right under contract law. I would submit that you probably could within Ontario demand and be free from any kind of restrictions under any kind of privacy laws, as a matter of contract law, that undertaking from a potential recipient.
Mr Costante: I agree with you. As I said, we do have them sign a waiver now that allows us on a case-by-case basis to do this. However, when you're talking about this number of cases -- and there are so many different places where you need to check: workers' compensation; the corrections system was a good example; the Ministry of Transportation, if you're trying to find somebody who owes child support, for example; if you need a birth certificate to prove a person's age, you will want to contact the registrar general's office. Our case workers are enabled to do that now with the waiver, but it has to be done on a very manual, intensive, one-on-one basis. What we're trying to do is move this to a more electronic means so that we can cope with the volume and the complexity of what we're dealing with.
Mr Gilchrist: I would agree with that direction. Just as a final submission on that point, I would disagree with you that it couldn't be done electronically today. If every single person on the database had signed such a waiver, obviously the entire database can be deemed to have signed that waiver, but we're not there.
The only other thing I want to say, because I know Mr Beaubien has a question as well, is that in the context of protecting ourselves at the front end, before someone starts receiving the benefits, 41% of the files reviewed for newly granted recipients were missing at least one piece of necessary information and 85% of the files -- 85% -- for ongoing recipients lacked at least one piece of necessary information.
My English class was a long time ago, but "necessary" to me would presuppose that you don't get something unless you've supplied that. I was most astounded when you used the example of a SIN number. I can't believe that there is any more central way of us tracking people than the only number that all Canadians possess. I'm astounded that, particularly using that example, we wouldn't send people immediately to go to the federal office and apply for a new one or whatever it takes, or go home and search their drawers again more carefully.
To have something revealed that 85% of your files are missing necessary information -- I did not hear anything, Ms Lang, in your opening statement about how you've dealt with these sorts of observations in the auditor's report and what steps have been taken to guarantee that by the next go-round we're going to see a number infinitely smaller than that as being the defect rate in your files.
Ms Lang: I did indicate that we have in fact introduced some expectations of our supervisors to do case file audits to make sure they do contain the right information. The enhanced verification process is intended to make sure that there are necessary documents on file, and we have been doing training with our staff to ensure they understand the requirements for the case file.
In addition to that, we have program review officers who spend a significant amount of time ensuring that the case files are up to speed and the documentation is there. It doesn't mean we don't have more work to do. I wouldn't say we don't; we do. The staff is working very hard to ensure that there is integrity in the system, but those things are being attended to now.
Mr Gilchrist: What particular steps were taken in those two offices that had clearly disregarded whatever previous instructions you'd sent out? "Noted: that two of the local offices were not even scheduling enhanced verification for ongoing files, as required, and two local offices" -- I'm going to assume the same two local offices -- "were not using questionnaires as required."
Ms Kardos-Burton: In the local offices where they had some additional requirements that needed to be met, there were action plans that were determined, and some of the things in those action plans were in fact a retraining of the staff in the guidelines. There were also memoranda sent out from the area managers, and I guess the one important thing is that it was raised at the area manager and at the senior levels in the local offices. Individuals, through the training, were spoken to in terms of, "Were there things that weren't understood?" But overall the key is the training and the reminders that were sent to the staff in the local offices.
Mr Crozier: I wanted to explain -- I'll do that quickly and go on. Certainly I think any fraud should be rigorously pursued and every attempt made to prevent it in the first place. I feel the same way when it comes to large corporations; I feel the same way when it comes to small business, and that's in another part of the auditor's report where taxes are not being collected; I feel the same way with individuals.
But I think the assistant deputy minister hit the nail on the head. We do have to abide by the law, and if someone signs a waiver -- certainly I'm not a lawyer, so I would suggest that if I signed it under what might be considered duress, I don't think it's fair to an individual to sign anything like that unless they absolutely know their legal rights. That really is my point, that I don't think we should get people in a situation where they're uninformed, where they're in need, and we get them to do something that may be in fact outside the law, but unfortunately the only way we'll find that out is if they realize it and are able to have access to a lawyer to defend them. That's my point. We must take every attempt to act within the law and every citizen, be they business or an individual, must be protected by that law, but fraud has to be pursued at all levels.
Earlier it was mentioned about the increase in case workers in the ministry. I think it was mentioned that you'd hired an extra 1,000 people. But I'd like to know, was there any net increase or decrease in these case workers? For example, what were the number of workers compared to the number of welfare cases and how has that moved over the last few years?
Ms Kardos-Burton: What we have today is a breakdown in terms of our current ratio in terms of the staff who are working in certain functions. We have 825 income maintenance officers. We have parental support workers. We have eligibility review officers. We have indirect staff also working on the programs, such as program review officers, income maintenance supervisors, direct service managers, income maintenance program supervisors, trainers, and support and clerical staff.
When we did the hiring between 1991 and 1994 for the staff, there were different objectives for each of the hiring practices that took place and there were groups of staff. For example, the hiring that we did in 1992-93, the objective was implementing the cost containment measures, and the later one was to improve the caseload examinations and program integrity.
Ms Barb Saunders: I have some of the figures in terms of the growth from 1993 forward, and there has been an increase. We began in 1993 with about 737 income maintenance officers. For 1996-97, as Mary said, we're at about 850. So that's an increase of about 113 income maintenance officers, and there have been corresponding increases in the other positions as well.
Mr Crozier: So, very simply, we have 1,000 more people on staff to do this work. Is that correct, or is that how many you hired as compared to how many may have left? When the comment was made about hiring an extra 1,000 case workers, are those 1,000 still there?
Ms Saunders: Throughout the years we have had constraints within the ministry in our direct operating expenditures. They have been applied to various positions differentially across the area offices, based on their size and how they're organized. So although there have been increases in staff and we still are ahead of the game, there have been some reductions as well to manage within our operating expenditures.
Ms Lang: I think we would have to go back and do those numbers for you. I don't know that we would have those data here today. What I think you're asking, if I understand the nature of the question, is whether there is a net increase in staff since we started the hiring process.
Mr Crozier: Okay. If I could give my impression, and then you can comment on it, it would seem to me that throughout the auditor's report there seems to be a concern that there isn't the staff to carry out properly the mandate of the ministry to protect against fraud, to give enhanced verification. One comment on page 4 of the research paper is: "Information provided at local offices visited indicated that only 39% of the 40,000 files for ongoing cases that should have had reviews had received them."
I think somehow we should determine if there's a payback in all of this. In other words, if we have to have more resources that are going to cost us more money up front, are we then going to save by being more vigilant? Are we then going to reduce our expenditures in the future? Do you have any comment with respect to that view?
Ms Lang: I think certainly the efforts in previous administrations to increase the staffing did have those objectives in mind. What we were not able to manage at that point in time, however, was the increase in caseload. So the effort to invest in staff to take on specific functions to address fraud or to address integrity in program management or to do the case management work that you're describing was mitigated by the growth in caseload. So I don't know that we've had success in those experiments.
It would be our hope that with the declining caseload and with our introduction of increased technology and the enhanced training that we're providing our staff, we might see some true benefits, which is why I think we're indicating that once we do the social assistance reform and we look at the new design of the programs and the benefit of technology, we'll then go back and take a look at what are appropriate caseload standards given the new expectations of the welfare program. Until those steps are completed, I'm not sure we're in a position to really comment specifically on your question and speculate on what might work best.
Mr Crozier: Probably one of the most difficult things to pin down, and I'll preface my remarks by saying it's probably the most difficult, and you can comment on it if you like: As a benchmark for what you feel should be done to prevent it and/or go into the field and detect it, what percentage would you speculate there is in the system that's fraudulent? I've tried to give you all the leeway I can.
Ms Lang: Yes, I know you have, and I appreciate that, because I'm going to take it, absolutely. I must admit that better minds than I have attempted to tackle that question, and I don't have the benefit of any more knowledge than they had to be able to give you a reasonable answer. I don't think there is a reasonable answer.
Mr Pouliot: Thank you. Perhaps it comes easily, with respect, Madam, but you're very, very positive and hopeful by nature. You probably have some merit in this. You see, the sun rises every day. You've mentioned the decreased workload. I'm going to quote from what Mr Peters and his staff have prepared for us.
It says that in 1992 -- we're talking about staffing -- "a caseload standard of 275 recipients per case worker. The study also observed that for every case above 275, progressively more functions would go undone, to a point where, with a caseload of more than 375, only 25% of the critical functions could be completed." This is as recent as 1992, so there's a degree of relevancy.
"During the 1995-96 fiscal year, the ministry had approximately 850 case workers who administered over 328,000 family benefits files, or an average of 385...." Let's keep in mind the 275. It's a given, a threshold. But here we're talking about, 1995-96 fiscal year, 385 files per case worker. "For the local offices we visited, average caseloads per worker ranged from 307 to 471. This is significantly higher" -- he says that; he's right -- "than the ministry's standard and the average of 320 files per case worker reported in our 1992 audit."
In the recommendation he goes further and he says, "In light of changing program requirements, the ministry should establish and adhere to reasonable workload standards to enable case workers to perform their work...."
You seem to embrace, to endorse, a different line of thought. You're very confident about the future and you've talked, and I can quote verbatim, of a "reduced workload," but this is in the face of what the Provincial Auditor has found. If he was to say, "Madam, just the facts," how would you reconcile your comments and the findings of the Provincial Auditor?
Ms Lang: I think I would have to indicate that the 275-to-1 ratio that was established, and I believe it was in the late 1980s that this ratio was the result of a study, was at a point in time when we did not have a significant number of other functions being performed by other staff in the social assistance program area. So I think it's quite fair for us to indicate that we need to revisit, once we have completed the policy work and changed the nature of the program delivery for social assistance, and review what might be an appropriate workload requirement for workers, particularly in light of the introduction of technology. Much of the workload has been relieved by virtue of technology.
It's an important comment to make that we are confident that we can move towards much more efficient and effective delivery with the introduction of technology and with changing some of the functions that front-line workers may have performed at the point in time when that particular study was completed.
Madame, I need your help in this. Trying to keep off the breadline, many were never -- we're never immune. We're all on a waiting list of sorts, whether it's the health waiting list, and we depend on the brothers and sisters, the community, the human dimension. I never wished to be a client in the system, but by virtue of only good fortune, or by virtue of bad fortune if you're a recipient, human frailties, which again, we all possess in some abundance, although our qualities might be legion.
In a broadly summarized way, and I do it by way of a question, how many people have been in this circumstance for more than four years, percentagewise? Again, grosso modo will suffice. Is it so many per cent have been one step in, one step out, they need a gentle, generous hand from time to time, and how many of them keep coming back because really there's no place else to go and you're the court of last resort?
Ms Lang: I think I'll try to give you some general responses, and there may be some specific numbers that Mary can provide for you, but in a general way, my answer would have to be that it depends on the nature of the individual circumstance.
For example, on our caseload where we are dealing with individuals with disabilities, if a person happens to be developmentally handicapped, it is quite conceivable that that person could be receiving benefits for a significant number of years, perhaps even a lifetime. If an individual is a sole-support parent, then they may be on the system for a period of time to deal with their unique circumstances. I think we know the average number of years, that sort of thing. In some circumstances, particularly on the general welfare side of the social assistance system, many people come on for two or three months. So it depends quite significantly on the circumstances, but I think Mary would be able to offer you some information on the average length of stay on the system depending on the nature of the caseload.
Ms Kardos-Burton: For the more temporary caseload, which is the general welfare assistance program run by the municipalities, as of March 1996, the average length that a person was on general welfare was 17.6 months, which translates into a year and a bit. In terms of the FBA program, which the deputy minister spoke about, the longer-term program, 65 months was the average length of stay, so that in fact is around four-plus years, so it's longer.
Mr Pouliot: Thank you. Just one last one. If I don't express my comments in a meticulous fashion, will you be a good Samaritan, because I make mistakes -- it's not easy, and I have to be careful, given the sensitivity of these subject matters, but only in this context. I see that the people -- I came here to learn English, Madame, so as sort of an immigrant, one could say, in a different context.
I see that the demographics, the people I see, the people who pay us the compliment of their visit on a permanent basis -- you are right. It's what made the country great. We have an aging population, so it's a happy balance, it's a necessary equilibrium with immigrants. You immigrate when you're young, and when you're young you have chances of having children etc, and Ontario takes in roughly -- don't quote me -- 59% or 60% of our guests who become Canadian citizens.
Are there some figures? Am I likely, if I'm a second-generation Canadian, third-generation Canadian -- if I have a support system when I come here, what are my chances of ending up as a client of yours? Is it more likely if I'm from this age to this age, what my background is? If I'm of a different background, what are my chances of ending up on welfare?
Mr Marcel Beaubien (Lambton): I'll pose a very brief question, hoping to get a very long answer. With regard to the information sharing in the auditor's report, it points out that the occurrence of sharing information is very infrequent, and as a result, there were no ongoing controls to ensure that all recipients were disclosing complete and accurate information and, for example, were not collecting other benefits such as unemployment insurance, workers' compensation benefits and other social assistance in other jurisdictions.
My concern is I don't think that the Provincial Auditor has touched -- I'm sure my friend Mr Crozier is going to be sensitive to that as a former insurance broker -- I think the fraud and the piggyback riding of benefits under section B of the auto policy, the accident benefits, and the welfare is rampant, and I don't think it's addressing the auditor's report, and I don't think the ministry has addressed that in the past.
Do you have any contact with private insurance carriers in Ontario? Because if you look at the record in the past five years, the benefits paid under section B of the auto policy have skyrocketed, and there's a reason for that.
Mr Erik Peters: Mr Beaubien, we dealt with part of this issue at least on page 61 where we dealt with the subrogation of outstanding legal claims. These are actually insurance claims that we're talking about, just for the record.
Mr Costante: I'll just add to what the auditor said. We do try to deal with this on a one-on-one basis. We don't have information sharing of an automated nature with private insurance. When the case worker enrols somebody into welfare or family benefits, that is one of the questions that is asked, are they getting some sort of insurance payments, so we do try to uncover that information.
I should mention, thank you very much, you've been very helpful. We would like you to come back next Thursday if you could. I think there are a number of other questions that we have. You can leave now. We're just going to report. Thank you very much.
"Your subcommittee met on October 22, 1996, and agreed to a schedule for the committee's review of certain sections of the 1996 Annual Report of the Provincial Auditor from October 24 to December 12, 1996. As required, the subcommittee will meet to revise this schedule, and to schedule other sections of the auditor's report for review after December."
"October 24, section 3.04, provincial allowances and benefits program; October 31, section 3.04, provincial allowances and benefits program; November 7, section 3.05, supportive services; November 21, section 3.18, Highway 407 central project; November 28, section 3.07, colleges of applied arts and technology; December 5, section 3.08, Ontario Training and Adjustment Board; December 12, section 3.09, environment standards and sciences divisions; chapter 4.00, section 3.06, water and sewage treatment facilities.
"Meetings will begin with a half-hour in camera briefing by the research officer and the Provincial Auditor and continue in open session. Relevant ministry staff will be invited to appear before the committee to provide comments and to answer questions."