Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government may have overpaid as much as $32 billion (US$23.5 billion) in COVID-19 benefits during the pandemic largely due to a lack of post-payment verification, the federal auditor general said.

The spending watchdog found that of the roughly $211 billion in benefit payments, $4.6 billion were sent to ineligible recipients and an additional $27.4 billion should be investigated further.

Of that amount, just $2.3 billion has been recovered and delays in verification mean the government may run out of time to collect the rest, Auditor General Karen Hogan said in a report released Tuesday. 

 “I am concerned about the lack of rigor on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” Hogan in a news release. Canada’s tax agency and its employment department “need to act now” to recover the money, she said. 

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said after the audit’s release that her department disagrees with some of its findings, arguing there is a higher level of compliance than the report estimates. Lebouthillier, speaking in French, said she believes the final amount of overpayments will be “much lower than the figures that were announced” by the spending watchdog.

Hogan’s report acknowledged the extraordinary speed with which the pandemic benefit programs — including payments sent to individuals and a wage subsidy sent to companies — were put together, and the challenge faced by a public service that itself had to switch to remote work.

She found the benefit programs achieved their basic objective and “quickly offered financial relief to individuals and employers, prevented a rise in poverty, mitigated income inequalities, and helped the economy to recover from the effects of the pandemic.”

But because the government decided to focus on delivering the payments fast without confirming eligibility, it made post-payment verification all the more important, the auditor said.

Despite this, the watchdog found the government’s “verification plans did not include verifying payments made to all identified recipients at risk of being ineligible.”

There have also been delays in conducting the verification and the government is “at risk of not completing all planned post-payment verifications within the applicable timelines,” meaning it “may be unable to identify and recover amounts owing.” 

Hogan also released an audit on the government’s Covid vaccine procurement program. She found that the government succeeded in acquiring and distributing sufficient doses but ran up an enormous surplus that may be wasted due to delays in implementing technology to track vaccine use.

The vaccine audit found that at the end of May, Canada had 32.5 million doses in inventory with an estimated value of $1 billion, the majority of which will expire by the end of 2022 if they’re not donated. An additional 50.6 million doses were deemed surplus and offered for donation, the auditor said, but 13.6 million expired before they could be shipped.