Parliamentary Ombudsman Riitta-Leena Paunio
National Mental Health Days seminar in Kuopio, 30.9.2008
"The lengthy times taken to process applications for benefits have long been the biggest shortcoming in our social security system," said Ombudsman Riitta-Leena Paunio in an address at the National Mental Health Days seminar in Kuopio. A feature that she described as particularly problematic is that dealing with appeals takes unduly long. At the moment, the overwhelmingly longest processing times are for appeals against decisions by the Social Insurance Institution (Kela) on benefit applications.
Appeals against decisions by Kela can be made to the Social Security Appeal Board. In the early half of this year, the average time taken by the Board to process appeals in all categories of cases was 15 - 16 months. Although rehabilitation-related cases are required to be processed urgently, the average processing time in this category was nearly 12 months. Processing of appeals relating to general housing subsidies and disability pensions has taken an average of over 18 months.
If the Board rejects an appeal against a Kela benefit decision, the matter can be appealed further to the Insurance Court. Also there, processing times have for years been too long. To redress these shortcomings, the Insurance Court has received additional resources, its work methods have been developed and panel compositions lightened, but nevertheless the overall processing time for all categories of cases before the Court was still 14.3 months in January-June 2008.
Processing times must be examined as a totality from the benefit applicant's point of view
In her work the Ombudsman examines official actions from the point of view of the individual person: what is at issue is the applicant's fundamental rights and safeguarding them. In her view, the long times taken to process appeals must be looked at as a totality from the perspective of the benefit applicant. At the moment, processing of applicants' appeals in various instances may proceed within the parameters of the average processing times, but when a final decision is left to the Insurance Court, it may not be announced until over 30 months after the application has been made.
In the Ombudsman's assessment, a situation of this kind is completely unreasonable from the applicant's point of view; after all, what is often involved is safeguarding the applicant's basic subsistence. However, the Ombudsman's observations do not indicate that sufficient efforts have been made to redress this shortcoming. The reason may be that the matter is viewed more from the angle of the authority and administrative sector than from that of the applicant.
The Ombudsman points out that lengthening processing times causes additional, unnecessary concern and economic difficulties for applicants' and their relatives at a time that is difficult anyway. They may have to resort to, for example, income support and some or other secondary form of support, such as a disability pension applicant drawing unemployment assistance.
Processing of appeals must be independent and impartial
Because appeal boards deal with matters that are important from people's point of view and often have significant economic effects, even matters that will affect them for the rest of their lives, people must be able to trust that processing will be independent and impartial. The Ombudsman wonders, therefore, whether the appeal boards should be made clearly courts in character. Deliberation of matters should not involve persons who have linkages with either law drafting or insurance institutions. Funding for the boards should also be completely independent of the insurance institutions. A change like this would improve implementation of people's fundamental rights.