Government does not expect to collect all pension overpayments, says Ross Wiseman

A Newfoundland and Labrador government pledge to be fair and understanding to recipients of pension overpayments over the last two decades will likely mean that not all of the nearly $1 million will be collected, says Finance Minister Ross Wiseman.

N.L. government's effort to reclaim overpaid funds won't involve estates

Newfoundland and Labrador Finance Minister Ross Wiseman acknowledged Wednesday that the government will likely not collect all of the overpayments made in error to more than 400 public-service pensioners. (CBC)

A Newfoundland and Labrador government pledge to be fair and understanding to recipients of pension overpayments over the last two decades will likely mean not all of the nearly $1 million will be collected, says Finance Minister Ross Wiseman.

In an interview Wednesday with CBC's St. John's Morning Show, Wiseman emphasized that the province has a legal obligation to try to recoup the roughly $935,000 paid out in error to nearly 430 public-service pensioners.

"This is a circumstance here where we're trying to balance our legal obligation to the pension plan with our responsibility to the individual who are impacted here to be patient with them, understanding, and make an arrangement that's reflective of their individual circumstance," Wiseman said.

He said the money belongs to the public-sector pension plan, not the provincial government.

But the government has said it will not impose undue financial hardship on pensioners, or force them into situations where they may have to sell their homes or make other difficult lifestyle decisions.

As well, many of the pensioners are in their twilight years, prompting Wiseman to acknowledge that many will "probably not repay that full amount."

He also stressed that the government won't go after the pensioners' estates.

Wiseman announced April 1 that "clerical errors" discovered during an internal audit, were to blame for the overpayments, which date back to the mid-1990s.

In the vast majority of cases, pensioners were overpaid by less than $300, but in some extreme cases, the total per person exceeds $50,000.

The government has said it will forgive any overpayments made up to 10 years ago, and also announced a series of other measures to ease the burden, including limiting repayments to a maximum of 15 per cent of a person's income.

And if, for example, a pensioner was receiving overpayments for a decade, he or she will be given twice that amount of time to pay back the money.

A portion will likely be written off

The government has received criticism in recent days for saying it will attempt to recover the money from pensioners on fixed incomes. Many live on limited means. 

Some have suggested the government should write off the money and use public funds to replenish the pension plan.

It's not uncommon for the government to write off bad debts, but Wiseman said that only occurs after every effort is made to collect the money.

"That sort of circumstance may happen here," said Wiseman.

When asked if there's a worry the issue may hurt the governing Progressive Conservatives in the upcoming general election, Wiseman said that will be up to voters.

However, he added: "If every time we made a decision we had to say, well, what will this look like on an election day, well, we would never be able to do anything."

Teachers' union pushes forgiveness

Meanwhile, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association suggested again Wednesday that the government should go easy on pensioners.
James Dinn is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association. (CBC)

James Dinn, who was attending the NLTA's biennial general meeting in St. John's, said many of the 401 retired teachers who were overpaid are willing and able to repay the money. 

But, he said, exceptions should be made for some pensioners, depending on their age and income.

"It might mean forgiving what that person owes, or part of it," said Dinn.

He said the errors were made by the province, and any money that is not paid back by the pensioners should be covered by the government.

"This mistake was at their level, through no fault of the individual," said Dinn.

With files from Anthony Germain and Peter Cowan

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