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City still doesn't know who got incorrect OW payments

It’s been seven months since the province implemented a faulty case management system for social assistance, and Hamilton still doesn’t know how many people got improper payments.

A new case management system, SAMS, resulted in millions of dollars in incorrect payments in Ontario

The city says it still doesn't know how many Hamiltonians got erroneous social assistance payments.

Seven months after the province implemented a faulty case management system for social assistance, Hamilton still doesn't know how many people got improper payments.

In fact, there may still be some people out there who were paid too much, or too little, and haven't been contacted.

Workers started using SAMS in November. Immediately, there were problems. It generated pages of bugs. Tasks that used to take three mouse clicks to do now took dozens. Workers left in tears each day.

The ministry is pretty confident that we found a lot of the issues, but there are still a lot of duplicate names in the system.- Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of community and social services

And perhaps most troublesome — the new system sent out nearly 17,000 incorrect Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Payments (ODSP), totalling about $20 million. It sent out another 2,600 incorrect payments shortly after that.

"The ministry is pretty confident that we found a lot of the issues, but there are still a lot of duplicate names in the system," said Joe-Anne Priel, general manager of community and social services. "We still don't have our financial reports. We can't be confident in terms of caseload size."

The province spent $240 million to implement SAMS, touting it as an easier and more efficient system. But it was a bumpy road. 

Many officials — including Priel — wrote to Minister of Community and Social Services Helena Jaczek imploring her to go back to the old system. "This is not a journey our clients should have to go on with us," Priel wrote. "We are dealing with real people here."

The province put more money and technical support into improving the system and helping municipalities. In Hamilton, that has meant $549,600 since 2013.

But extra staffing between November and next June will cost the city $667,035, Priel said. The city will ask the province for more money to cover that cost too.

And that might end up being higher. Bill Atanas, the director of benefits eligibility division, said the city will be in "recovery mode" for the next 12 to 18 months.

That recovery will include tallying how many recipients received incorrect payments, and for how much, he said.

'Still too early to even quantify that'

Social services officials rely on monthly reports to show how much recipients were paid. And SAMS still isn't generating those, Atanas said.

"It's still too early to even quantify that," Atanas said. "That is part of our recovery plan over the next 12 months. That's the next fix the ministry of working on."

Meanwhile, the SAMS adjustments continue. Forty-four staff from other areas, such as employment verification, were moved over to case management on Monday, Priel said. They will be there for at least a year.

The shuffle is needed to help workers catch up on cases, she said. The ideal Ontario Works caseload is 100 cases per one worker. Right now, the city has 153 cases to one worker. Priel hopes the shift will lower that to 95 cases per worker.

Much of the employment work is either not being done, or will fall to social service agencies, Priel said.

Province 'knows the value' on someone's life

Hamilton's current OW caseload sits at about 12,800 cases, said Priel's report to the emergency and community services committee on Monday. But it's hard to quantify under the current SAMS system, so that's only an estimate.

The province released a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers in May that studied the implementation of SAMS. At the time, Jaczek acknowledged that there were issues, but that the system was working.

"The rollout of the new SAMS technology has been challenging and stressful for the people who use it, and I want to again thank our staff and our delivery partners for their patience and continued dedication as we work through these challenges together," she said.

As for whether the province will give Hamilton more money, ministry spokesperson Amber Anderson pointed to the nearly $550,000 already provided. She also mentioned that the city will save nearly $2.9 million next year as the province uploads more costs of administering OW.

"The ministry knows the value that social assistance programs can have in someone's life," she said in an email,  "and we are dedicated to providing the right support to Ontarians in need."

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