Mr. Speaker, I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this important motion today. I would like to start by restating my support and the support of Canada's new government for Motion No. 243, which was presented by the hon. member for Kitchener Centre.
The proposed study will contribute to Human Resources and Social Development Canada's practice of continuously monitoring and assessing the Canada pension plan to ensure that it meets the needs of Canadians, both today and in the future. I know this study will provide valuable information on the extent to which the Canada pension plan disability program is meeting its objectives. This is important information. That is why I feel quite strongly that this study should be completed as soon as possible, not delayed until November.
It is important to note that later this week parliamentarians also will be considering possible changes to Bill C-278, which deals with another important program for persons with disabilities, EI sickness benefits, and I feel strongly that the Human Resources study of the level of financial support offered by the Canada pension plan disability needs to happen now.
The information to be gleaned from the study of CPP disability should be considered before proceeding to discuss possible changes to EI sickness benefits. All too often in this place hon. members want to act before the facts are in. They want to propose changes to programs before they even know whether there is a problem or not, and the political speeches begin before studies are undertaken. This issue is far too important to play politics with and I feel that every member of the House can agree with that.
This is an important issue, one that deserves to be examined right away. Let me repeat: this is important information and we need it as soon as possible, not in November. There are bills before Parliament that require the information that can be learned from studying this program and these bills will not wait until fall.
I think there is some confusion here as to what the CPP disability program is and what it is supposed to do. Therefore, I think it would be good to have a cursory examination of the program so that we can clear the air on a few important points before we begin to discuss changes in earnest.
It is important that all hon. members and in fact all Canadians understand what this program is about and how it works.
Let me start by saying the CPP disability program is the largest long term disability insurance program in Canada. Currently, some 300,000 Canadians and 90,000 of their dependent children receive about $3.3 billion in payments. The CPP program as a whole is recognized around the world as one of the best public pension systems in the world and this government has acted to make it even better.
The CPP disability program was designed to replace a portion of earnings for those who have to leave the workforce due to a severe and prolonged mental or physical disability. This program was not intended to function as a general needs-based income program. There are other levels of support, offered by all levels of government, that fulfill that role. Its purpose is to provide protection against the loss of employment income and to supplement other disability and family income.
How does it work? There are contributory and medical eligibility requirements for the disability benefit, as laid out in the Canada pension plan. First, applicants must have made CPP contributions in four of the last six years. This requirement of recent contributions to the CPP is designed to address the objective of replacing a portion of employment income.
While the government feels that this issue is worthy of immediate study, that is not to say that the government has not acted to make changes to this program. I am sure all members know that. It is part of Bill C-36, currently under review in the Senate. A proposed amendment seeks to make it easier to qualify for CPP disability benefits for long term CPP contributors, those with 25 or more years of contributions, by requiring contributions in only three of the last six years.
Second, as stipulated in the legislation, only those with a severe and prolonged mental or physical disability are eligible to receive disability benefits. This requirement refers to a disability that prevents an applicant from working regularly at any substantially gainful occupation, not just their most recent jobs.
As we can see from the specific eligibility requirements, not all Canadians with a work-limiting disability will be eligible to receive a benefit. CPP disability is intended for some of our most vulnerable Canadians.
I would like to take this opportunity today to address an important and often misunderstood point. I understand from recent comments made in the House that some are under the impression that all applicants for CPP disability benefits are automatically denied and that only through appealing this decision do they eventually receive CPP disability benefits.
This is simply not true and is a perfect example of some of the misunderstandings surrounding this program, misunderstandings that we on this side of the House feel should be examined immediately. If hon. members on the other side of the aisle feel this is true, then they should also want to study this immediately and not shirk their responsibilities by ignoring this issue for another six months.
That being said, each and every application for a CPP disability benefit is reviewed thoroughly and fairly with reference to the legislative requirements and in a timely manner.
Trained CPP disability specialists with a medical background view each applicant's application. They look at their capacity to work, taking into consideration their health status, disability-related limitations, treatments, and personal characteristics such as age, level of education, and work experience. All of these components are extremely important in the decision making process and help ensure a fair decision that is consistent with eligibility criteria.
Clients whose applications are not approved receive telephone calls and personalized letters explaining the reasons for denial. In addition, in cases where an applicant is not satisfied with a decision on their application for CPP disability benefits, there are three separate levels of recourse available. The last two levels are appeals to two independent review tribunals. This generous appeal structure is designed to ensure fairness and accessibility.
In addition, it is important to note that a significant number of CPP disability recipients can also receive benefits from other sources. The CPP disability program is one part of a broad and complex income system for persons with disabilities, a system that includes private long term disability insurance, workers' compensation, employment insurance sickness benefits, and provincial social assistance.
Staff in Service Canada's service delivery network also refer those who are denied a CPP disability benefit to other appropriate programs and supports that may be made available to them. For example, CPP disability applicants are encouraged to apply for a tax credit, called the disability tax credit, or the veterans disability pension if it appears that they may be eligible for one or both of these entitlements. In some cases, Service Canada staff will assist these individuals with their applications.
The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities may wish to take this overall context of CPP disability programs into account when undertaking its study.
A number of hon. members of this House have indicated that it takes too long to adjudicate applications for CPP disability benefits. In 2005 and 2006, the disability program received more than 60,000 applications. Of those, over 30,000 applicants were granted benefits.
In terms of speed of service, the target is that 75% of decisions will be made within four months of receiving a completed form. As of February 2007, 86% of decisions were made within this timeframe.
Service Canada is exceeding its stated targets. That is indeed something to be proud of and we can feel confident that most vulnerable clients are being well attended to.
I again want to thank the House for the opportunity to speak today. I want to reiterate that it is an important issue that cannot wait until fall to be examined. There is currently legislation before the House and the Senate that would benefit from the knowledge that can be gained from undertaking an examination of the CPP disability, and these bills will not wait until fall. We need answers as soon as possible.
We would be shirking our duty as responsible legislators if we were to allow bills to proceed without having all the evidence in place beforehand. If the opposition really is interested in more than just playing politics with this important issue, then it will want to examine this issue right away and not wait until fall.