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Completion of Two Major Reviews & Preparations for Expanded Health Role

2011-04-14

News Release

News Release

In his 2010 Annual Report tabled today, Saskatchewan’s Ombudsman Kevin Fenwick reported on the completion of two major reviews – one in the health field and one related to social assistance. Fenwick said, “Both reviews enabled us to dig deeper and address issues that impact hundreds of people. We also think we can help many people across the province by expanding our work in health and we made a start on that in 2010.”

Health Ombudsman Service Expansion - In the coming year, the Ombudsman’s office is expanding its health services. The Ombudsman already takes complaints of unfairness in provincial and regional health care services. Fenwick believes that with increased public awareness, more people will bring these kinds of concerns to his office. Fenwick also believes that it is important for health workers and officials to understand how the Ombudsman defines fairness and how this ties in to the administrative decisions they make every day. “In 2010, we met
with representatives across the health system to let them know more about our office – not only about the kinds of complaints we can take, but also about what we expect. We conducted two of our “Fine Art of Fairness” workshops for people in the health field in 2010 and have several more completed or scheduled for 2011. We are encouraged by their interest in applying the principles of fairness to their work with the public.”

Complaints about health care services in 2010 reached 141, up from 80 in 2009, and an average of about 100 per year previously. This number is a combination of complaints against the Ministry of Health, the Regional Health Authorities and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.

Breast Cancer Wait List Review Update - The Ombudsman has completed a review of breast cancer wait lists in the province and has recently provided the review to the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency (SCA). Once the SCA responds to the Ombudsman, the report will be made public. That is expected later this spring and the Ombudsman will be prepared to discuss the findings at that time.

A Question of Fairness: A Review of Social Assistance Overpayments - In 2009, the Ombudsman completed a review into the Ministry of Social Services’ use of the Canada Revenue Agency to collect social assistance overpayments. The review, titled A Question of Fairness, looked at how overpayments were assessed, charged to people and collected as well as the review or appeal options available. Overpayments are funds that were paid to a person in excess of what they should have received. This can happen for a variety of reasons and the
money is owed back to Social Services. In cases where other arrangements are not made, the overpayment can be collected by diverting the individual’s federal income tax refund directly to the province.

Fenwick says he has seen examples where people are already off social assistance and find out months or years later that they have an overpayment. In some cases, the individual disputes the overpayment or the
amount of the overpayment. Sometimes the individual is unaware that he is being charged an overpayment
and only learns of it when the income tax refund has already been taken. “Sometimes the amount owing is
hundreds or even thousands of dollars and for people who are on assistance or trying to make a new start and be self-supporting, this can be a devastating discovery.”

The Ombudsman believes that when an overpayment is legitimately owed it should be paid back. If individuals disagree about an overpayment, they can in some instances take the case to one of the Ministry’s appeal tribunals – but Fenwick says the appeal system needs to be better supported. “These tribunals are made up of community members who want to do what is fair, but require additional support and training from the Ministry. Fenwick also found that those who appear and plead their cases before the tribunals are also hampered by the lack of support available to them. “He says, “Many of these folks go before the tribunals with no support person or advocate helping them.”

Since 2009, the Ministry has taken several corrective steps, the most important of which is to commit to appropriate training for the tribunal’s members. Fenwick acknowledged the Ministry’s efforts and said, “I am pleased to see that the Ministry has begun to take steps to correct this, and I hope they will continue to do so.”

Fenwick made 32 recommendations in his report: 19 to the Ministry, seven to the appeal tribunals and three
to government. The Ministry has accepted 16 recommendations but has rejected the call for a fair practices office. “A fair practices offi ce would look for patterns of complaints and work internally to resolve the underlying issues. This is working for other government offices and Crown Corporations that have such an office and we believe it would work well for the Ministry of Social Services – and more importantly for the individuals and families who rely on programs provided by the Ministry.”

The Ombudsman Saskatchewan 2010 Annual Report and A Question of Fairness are available online at www.ombudsman.sk.ca.

The Ombudsman is an Officer of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan who promotes and protects fairness in the design and delivery of government services. He has the authority to take complaints from members of the public who believe the government administration has not dealt fairly with them. The office provides a range of services, including investigation, negotiation and mediation. Government administration includes any
ministry, branch, board, agency or commission, responsible to the Crown, and any public servant in Saskatchewan.

The Ombudsman operates under The Ombudsman and Children’s Advocate Act.

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Media contact:
Leila Dueck
Director of Communications
Ombudsman Saskatchewan
Phone: 306-787-7369
E-mail: ldueck@ombudsman.sk.ca

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