Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski writes about the CRA scandal. Photo submitted

COLUMN: Canada Revenue Agency’s unacceptable service levels

Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski takes a look at the CRA controversy

By Wayne Stetski

Last month the Auditor General (AG) of Canada’s Report on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) was released, and the results are alarming. The CRA has a mandate to help taxpayers understand our complex and often bewildering tax forms, rules, and procedures, yet according to the report, the CRA deliberately blocks over half the calls it receives with a busy signal.

An additional 14 per cent of callers get routed to an automated self-service option. Of the 32 per cent who manage to reach a live agent, the information provided to them has been inaccurate almost 30 per cent of the time.

According to these statistics, only about 36 per cent of Canadians who reach a live person at the CRA actually receive accurate responses to their inquiries.

The AG report suggests it is not just “gaps” in training for agents that are responsible for such a high incident of inaccuracies, it is the number of different applications an agent can source to look for answers. In response to this finding, the CRA blames the limitations of its “aging call centre technology” and cites the new, “telephony platform” they are transitioning to as the solution.

Modernizing the existing technology may not be particularly reassuring to Canadians however, given the fiasco of the Phoenix Pay System. Introduced in 2016 by the Conservative government, the system used to pay federal civil servants has never worked properly.

Despite promises by the Liberal government to fix Phoenix, the system continues to underpay, overpay or not pay civil servants to the tune of over half a billion dollars.

At an initial price tag of $310 million for implementation, Phoenix has already cost taxpayers $145 million with another $350 million budgeted over the next two years with no guarantee the problem will be fixed.

Alarmingly, there already seems to be a “glitch” in the CRA’s new, centralized computer system. Processing of 2016 tax returns has resulted in some taxpayers receiving up to five reassessment notices, all containing different information, for their 2016 tax returns.

These notices have in turn contributed to a five-month backlog in manual processing. In addition automatically generated reviews have resulted in the withholding of existing Canada Child Benefit (CCB) and Service Canada ‘s Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits, pending clarification.

Some of my most vulnerable constituents, single-parent families and senior citizens, have waited months for their benefits to resume.

This situation can create a domino effect of increased poverty. For example, the typical wait time for a straightforward OAS claim is eight months. Wait times can be a year or more if there is anything atypical about the claim, such as a constituent working past the age of 65 or working outside of Canada for a period of time.

These unrealistic wait-periods put already struggling seniors at greater risk for hunger, home eviction and an inability to pay for vital prescription medications.

For low-income seniors living across Kootenay-Columbia on less than $17,000 a year, the length of time spent living in poverty can be even longer, as these individuals cannot even begin the application process for the GIS “top-up” to which they are entitled until their OAS has been processed.

Given the current backlog situation at the CRA and its domino effect on Service Canada benefit application processing times and vulnerable constituents’ financial stability, it’s no wonder that my constituency staff in Cranbrook and Nelson receive numerous calls every week from people who are frustrated and looking for answers.

It is incumbent upon the Liberal government to hire and train the additional staff required to get things back on track, and of doing their due diligence before introducing any new technology platform to the CRA.

Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski writes here once a month.

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