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More than 60% of Sask. income support calls ignored, auditors report reveals

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Social Services had more than 60 per cent of the more than 255,000 calls to its SIS phone line go unanswered over a six-month period, the province’s auditor says in her 2023 report.

Provincial Auditor Tara Clemett also found that close to 50,000 of those calls were specific to Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) applications.

“We found the Ministry needs to provide potential clients with better access to apply for benefits, such as making computers available at all of its offices, offering sufficient in-person assistance with the SIS application process, and consistently providing a call-back function, a news release from the auditor says.

The report found that fewer than 50 per cent of individuals apply for SIS benefits online.

“During an unannounced visit to a large delivery office, we found staff did not sufficiently provide guidance or offer assistance related to the SIS application process,” the release says.

According to the report, the ministry assesses SIS applications within five business days about 90 percent of the time but does not sufficiently address key issues such as the lack of computer access for many applicants, the lack of streamlined client support and clients missing appointments with ministry planning and support specialists.

The report also says the ministry needs to periodically analyze data about SIS clients who are evicted and have unpaid utility bills and make strategies to address those scenarios. The report recommends that the ministry also should offer timely case planning support and meet regularly with SIS clients to follow up on their unique case plans.

The report also shows that 5,200 SIS clients have unpaid utility bills greater than $100, which amounts to nearly $4.2 million as of February 2023.

SIS clients also need to be referred to proper supports such as employment services and counselling when appropriate, with follow-ups on those referrals happening on a consistent basis, the report says.

The report also recommends says the effectiveness of SIS needs to be measured better. That would include tracking how long clients receive SIS as well as the proportion of clients dropping SIS but then returning within a certain time frame.

SIS has been offered since 2019 and is meant to provide financial assistance for people to meet their basic needs while they work toward self-sufficiency.

Those basic needs include money for rent, mortgage and utility payments, as well as funds for food and local transportation, the report says

In 2022-23, over 17,000 SIS clients were provided an expected $261.5 million in benefits, according to the report.

Advocates say it's a long standing problem.

"This is what we hear from our clients on a daily basis is that they’re having a very difficult time getting through to the client service centre and being able to have their concerns responded to," said Peter Gilmer with the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. 

The Ministry of Social Services says ten people will be added to the call centre to handle inquiries. The auditor will be checking back to make sure the issue has been resolved.

- With files from Wayne Mantyka Top Stories

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