Numerous welfare recipients got no money or as little as $5 last Friday due to problems with the new $240-million computer system that manages Ontario’s social assistance caseload, says the head of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
Warren “Smokey” Thomas said the wrong allowance payments affected Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program recipients and is concerned the problems might mean recipients don’t get their December cheques in time for Christmas.
“People have rent to pay, food to buy, and they are left without,” said the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). Thomas told the Star some of these recipients are people who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues “and when they don’t get their money that kind of thing is very, very traumatic.’’
Problems with the new Social Assistance Management System (SAMS) software platform also resulted in $20 million of overpayments to 17,000 individuals or families last Monday.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the province’s Ministry of Community and Social Services have blamed the problems on a “glitch’’
But opposition members, frontline caseworkers, and union leaders accuse the government of underplaying the problem, saying the overpayment is just one aspect of a multitude of issues with SAMS, software built by Dublin-based company Curam, now owned by IBM. The software was blamed earlier this year for causing serious problems with Maryland and Minnesota’s online health exchanges, the Wall Street Journal reported in January.
A spokesperson for IBM, Carrie Bendzsa, said in a statement Monday evening that the company “doesn’t discuss the specifics of our client contracts” and referred questions to the Social Services ministry.
Last week was the first time cheques went out in the province using the new system.
In a backgrounder, OPSEU says the problems Friday included:
• One client reportedly receiving $5 for a family of five;
• Social assistance payments being deposited into incorrect or inactive bank accounts;
• Payments going to ex-spouses.
SAMS users have made 6,295 calls reporting problems to IT help since mid-November.
In response the press secretary for Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services, Helena Jaczek said the “monthly payments for November were successfully completed.’’
“In total the system successfully processed payments to over 570,000 of our most vulnerable families,’’ Amber Anderson said in a statement to the Toronto Star late Monday afternoon.
“We know this because traffic at local offices has been consistent with the normal volume,” she added.
In-person traffic at local offices is an indicator the ministry uses to assess whether there are any unusual issues with the first payment run.
But earlier in the day, opposition members at Queen’s Park, pounced on the SAMS controversy.
“It’s unacceptable that people are not getting their cheques, payments are being delayed, or they’re in the wrong amount. People depend on those cheques to be delivered on time and in the right amount,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said during question period.
Horwath said the Liberals rolled out a computer program full of bugs. She said the Liberals’ response to this situation was disgraceful, casting it off as a “glitch.”
“It’s reprehensible that the premier and her minister are so flippant about this situation that they’re forcing the most vulnerable Ontarians to pay for the Liberals’ mistakes,’’ Horwath added.
Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Walker (Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound) said he’s concerned the number of people not getting cheques “could be a whole lot bigger.”
“The people that are not going to get these cheques are the most needy in our society,” he said.
It’s time to recall the legislative committee to ask questions of system developers, front-line workers using it and recipients left in turmoil, said Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier.
With 17,000 overpayments out of 570,000 cheques — a rate of 3 per cent — the glitch was anything but minor,Hillier added, criticizing the government for trying to “whitewash” the problem with a lackadaisical attitude.
The province says that 11,000 of last Monday’s overpayments were corrected right way, but 6,000 cases may have received payments. In those cases the province had to arrange for a stop payment, or a reverse transaction.
“Just a little over 100 cheques are still being corrected,” Wynne told reporters Monday, acknowledging “there is no doubt it would have been much better if the glitch hadn’t happened.”
She said problems can happen when new computer systems are put in place.
“This is a change, is a massive system, 500,000 cheques a month,” she said.
Jaczek told question period the average overpayment was $1,100 and that as of Monday morning there were just 119 recipients to notify they received wrong amounts of money through cheques or direct deposits to their bank accounts.
Jaczek said overpayments can be clawed back, in some cases at a rate of 5 per cent a month to avoid causing “hardship” if overpayments have not been reversed in time.
The company that built the computer system is working with the government to resolve problems, she added, noting “we are confident that things are going the way they should.”
But she also said given a system of this size and complexity, “I can’t guarantee there are not going to be future errors.”