Canada Revenue Agency still subjecting taxpayers to 'humiliating, frustrating' benefit review process: report
'My accountant told me I should basically show up at a CRA office with all my documents and just start crying'
The Canada Revenue Agency says it has made changes to how it conducts benefit reviews in the wake of CBC stories describing the problems faced by single parents in the process — and after the agency's own focus group study found the reviews to be "overwhelming," "frustrating" and "humiliating."
But Canadian taxpayers who spoke to the CBC about their current battles with the CRA say the changes the agency has made don't go far enough and have made no difference to their experiences so far.
"My accountant told me I should basically show up at a CRA office with all my documents and just start crying," said Roberta Bouchard, a single mother of two teens in Ottawa. She pointed out that there are no CRA client offices in Ottawa.
Bouchard has been battling the agency since last December to prove that she is separated from her husband and that her children live with her. Being able to prove those things would establish her eligibility for the Canada Child Benefit and determine how much she can receive.
Every year, the CRA sends about 350,000 Canadians a letter letting them know their eligibility for benefits is being reviewed.
In the wake of CBC stories last December that led to the CRA apologizing to single parents who felt targeted by the agency over benefits, the agency commissioned a focus group to study the problem.
Pollara Strategic Insights interviewed 39 people in March who saw their benefits stopped by the CRA, then eventually reinstated. The study looked at the problems these people experienced with the benefits validation process.
The focus group's findings were just made public — and they echo what CBC reported in December.
Many people told the focus group they never received the initial review letter in time to reply, and lost their benefits as a result.
'Anxiety, humiliation, anger'
Some also reported the agency didn't give them enough time to gather the necessary proof, and that the documentation the CRA required was too difficult to put together.
Overall, people reported finding the process overwhelming and feeling "anxiety, humiliation and anger" over what they went through.
"Many were embarrassed that they would have to go to the school, doctor, employer, landlord, etc. and explain their marriage and financial situation," the report said.
Many also told the focus group they're still frustrated by their inability to get anyone from CRA on the phone.
Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier did not respond to a request for an interview, but in an email, the department said changes have been made:
- If the CRA doesn't hear from a benefit recipient by the date specified in the original letter, the agency reaches out to them by telephone before making any changes to benefits.
- The agency has reduced the number of documents required to support a benefits claim.
- The agency's letters have been rewritten to make them easier to read and understand.
- The CRA has hired more call centre agents to improve telephone access.
Bouchard said that if any of that is true, it hasn't helped her.
She has stacks of paper on her dining room table that include copies of all the documents she has sent to the CRA: her lease agreement, bills in her name, official letters from her kids' school and attestations from people on an approved list of third-party professionals who can vouch for her.
"If you really want to know I'm a single mom, just come park outside my house for a couple of days. It will be quite obvious," she said.
The paper piles also include all the contradictory letters she has received from the agency — some that say she owes the government thousands of dollars, others that say the government owes her money. The last one she got says she owes more than $9,000 — a prospect she described as "terrifying."
'The problems ... appear to be getting worse'
Paul Millar, a single dad of two sons in Kitimat, B.C., said he's been fighting the CRA since March over more than $2,000 in child benefit payments that he said he needs to pay his bills.
"I've had my hydro disconnected twice. I have a disconnection notice right now on my table," he said, adding that attempts to sort it out over the phone with the CRA have been fruitless.
"I just kept getting the runaround. 'Oh we'll look into it, we'll look into it.' I've been getting 'we'll look into it' for so long that I've stopped phoning. They put up all this red tape so you get frustrated and give up."
Andrea Olfert is a single mom in Saskatoon with five children under the age of 12. She is one of the many Canadians who never received the first review letter and subsequently lost their benefits.
"And they said I owed them more than $18,000," she said.
She got her benefits back and her bill reversed — but not until she was able to get a dedicated CRA case worker who made the unusual decision to allow Olfert's friends to give telephone interviews attesting to her separated status.
Driven by an Auditor General's report of a year ago showing major problems with the CRA's call centre and the accuracy of the information the CRA was providing to taxpayers — and by concerns that Canada continues to let big tax cheats hide money in tax havens — some opposition MPs have been calling on the government to make major changes to the way the CRA conducts itself and who it goes after.
But despite the changes the CRA insists it has made, and promises by the minister to make the CRA client-focused and friendlier, MPs have told CBC that helping constituents deal with the CRA is still a major part of their work.
"The problems are systemic, appear to be getting worse, not better from discussions I've had with countless tax professionals across Canada and it's time for action," said Pat Kelly the Conservative critic for the CRA.
"There is pressure to collect and the lowest hanging fruit is, in many cases, the most vulnerable Canadians."
The CRA said case reviews sometimes result in increased benefits. The agency also said a federal program to encourage non-filers to file returns led to more than $32 million in benefits being paid out last fiscal year.
But the agency did not answer questions about how much revenue is clawed back every year through the agency's reduction or elimination of benefits following a review.
- This story has been edited from an earlier version that stated the federal government paid out $32 million in benefits last fiscal year. In fact, that figure refers to benefit payments related to a program to encourage non-filers to file tax returns.Sep 28, 2018 5:38 PM ET