Government accepted verbal information instead of hard-copy proof, but ministry insists all applications were checked
By Rob Shaw, Vancouver Sun
People line up at Powell and Main in Vancouver on ‘Welfare Wednesday.’
Photograph by: GLENN BAGLO , VANCOUVER SUN
VICTORIA — The B.C. government quietly relaxed the rules for some welfare applications after an internal computer crash last month created a massive backlog of paperwork.
The province instituted an “ID-only” procedure that allowed applicants in some cases to verbally explain their work history and financial situation, instead of providing hard-copy evidence in the form of bank statements and rental or shelter agreements.
The government argues it was only trying to triage its most urgent income assistance cases — spouses fleeing abusive relationships that needed welfare, for example — and such cases don’t normally require upfront documented proof. A team of investigators later verified all the welfare claims, according to the government.
But the union representing front-line workers says the relaxations were extended to more than just emergency cases. And it fears the province has opened itself up to potential fraud as it grapples with the fallout over its problem-prone Integrated Case Management (ICM) computer system.
The change occurred during a “catch-up period” in May after the $182-million ICM computer system slowed to unusable speeds across the province, forcing a backlog in applications for income assistance and disability.
“Where you are not doing verifications, then of course there can be fraud,” said Doug Kinna, who represents ICM workers in the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union.
“I guess at some point they’ll go back through their files with a fine-tooth comb, but in the meantime, who knows what is happening with those clients? They could just disappear. They could have issued a lot of funds that people weren’t eligible for.”
A single parent with one child on income assistance receives $945 a month, or more if on disability assistance.
The Ministry of Social Development insists the intake process remains grounded in the same legal regulations, regardless of how information was collected.
Cases where the relaxations were made were later checked by investigators.
A May 28 email from a Kamloops employment and assistance supervisor outlined “modifications during catch-up period” that included “document requirement modifications.”
“Rely on your conversation with the applicant to assess eligibility,” read the supervisor’s email.
The change meant some new welfare clients could get through the application process based only on a phone call with an intake worker, and show their identification later when they picked up their cheque at a government office.
Normally, an applicant would have to submit shelter forms, bank statements, records of employment, applications for other sources of income and proof they completed any required weeks of work-search programs to try to find a job.
Applications with contradictory information or other concerns would be flagged without payment until the person submitted documents, read the supervisor’s email.
The ICM system crashed in early May for unknown reasons, and was slowly brought back to full capacity by the end of the month.
That left government with a backlog of at least 2,000 income assistance applications, said Kinna.
Vulnerable clients and children were waiting for money, he said. Some workers were uneasy with the new procedures, but many just wanted to get money to those who needed it during the computer problems, he said.
“At some point when a computer system has been down that long you have to hurry through and pick up the pieces after,” said Kinna.
“How much will it cost to pick up those pieces? Nobody knows.”
The government email noted that the changes to ICM procedures were for speed. “The intent of these modifications is to save time, so that applicants are moved through the intake process more quickly,” noted the email.
The Ministry of Social Development said in a statement that verbal screening questions are always the first step of an application, but investigators later double check information with “credible independent sources” such as credit companies and the land title office. Clients must repay any money obtained fraudulently, the ministry said.
After receiving calls from The Sun about the story, the practices reverted back to normal Tuesday morning, with an internal note to ministry staff that it was “business as usual” for documents required by intake workers.
The ICM computer system, which is supposed to handle income assistance, disability and child welfare case files, had been plagued with problems and complaints in the last two years, and remains the target of a public safety warning by the province’s Representative for Children and Youth.