AG report: Vets face long waits, complex process for benefits eligibility
Published Tuesday, November 25, 2014 10:08AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, November 25, 2014 7:57PM EST
Canada’s wounded and psychologically scarred veterans can wait up to eight months -- and are forced to conquer a “complex” application process -- to find out if they are eligible for disability benefits, according to a damning auditor general’s report released Tuesday.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson says veterans face a number of unnecessary obstacles to accessing much-needed physical and mental health benefits, and Veterans Affairs Canada has not done enough to monitor the effectiveness of its treatment programs for those veterans.
Ferguson’s report says 80 per cent of veterans face an eight-month wait to find out if they are eligible for benefits -- a period of time that’s twice as long as Veterans Affairs Canada’s four-month standard.
“Access to the Disability Benefits Program, through which the majority of veterans receive long-term mental health support, is not timely,” the report says in its conclusion.
“It’s just taking too long,” Ferguson told CTV’s Power Play on Tuesday. “Because the services are so critical, it’s important that the veteran be able to gain access to them as soon as possible.”
The auditor general’s investigation found the application process for disability benefits to be “complex and time-consuming,” and pointed out that many of the delays in the process came from Veterans Affairs being slow to obtain applicants’ military records.
Ferguson’s report also identified longer-than-reasonable wait times for veterans to be assessed at operational stress injury clinics, and indicated more should be done to evaluate the effectiveness of the ministry’s programs.
“The ministries need to know if the services they provide really meet the needs of Canadians,” Ferguson told reporters at a news conference earlier in the day.
Ferguson’s report acknowledged the success of Canada’s “timely” short-term rehabilitation program in providing adequate care, but pointed out that delays in the Disability Benefits Program are far more impactful for the majority of veterans.
Ferguson said Veterans Affairs Canada needs to streamline its process, and more funding might help with that. However, he said funding was not a “particular issue” bogging down the process.
The Conservative government announced on Sunday it would spend $200 million over the next five years to improve services for veterans, which will include the opening of eight additional operational stress injury clinics across the country.
The announcement came after it was discovered last week that the government failed to spend about $1 billion earmarked for veterans’ health initiatives.
The president of the Royal Canadian Legion says he welcomes the auditor general’s recommendations for improving veterans’ services, and is glad to hear the government will spend $200 million on new operational stress injury clinics.
“We need the money. We need it now,” said Legion president Tom Eagles.
Eagles said he hopes some of that money will go toward adding staff to assist veterans with mental health issues.
“If we don’t have staffing, we have nothing,” he said.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino was not in Ottawa to address the auditor general’s report on his department. Although he had been scheduled to deliver a speech at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research conference in Toronto on Tuesday morning, he was instead in Italy to mark the 70th anniversary of Canadian participation in Italy’s Second World War campaign.
“They acted quickly on the report,” Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner said of the Conservatives on CTV’s Power Play Tuesday. “They were able to get him (Fantino) out of the country so Rob Nicholson could answer the questions,” he said.
However, a spokesperson from Fantino’s office thanked the auditor general for calling its mental health support “timely.”
“Minister Fantino recommend that the auditor general review the mental health supports in order to help improve our programs and services,” spokesperson Ashlee Smith said in an email. “We thank the auditor general for making constructive recommendations and we appreciate his finding that access to mental health support is timely.”
Fantino also made a similar comment on his Twitter account, and responded to CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson.
Auditor General says 20% of veterans are waiting more than 8 months just to find out if they qualify for mental health benefits.— Mercedes Stephenson (@CTVMercedes) November 25, 2014
@CTVMercedes Inaccurate – this is not consistent with the AG report. 84 percent of rehab decisions in under 2 weeks.— Julian Fantino (@JulianFantino) November 25, 2014
Minister, I thought you weren't available because you are on a flight @JulianFantino— Mercedes Stephenson (@CTVMercedes) November 25, 2014
Furthermore Minister, you are deliberately conflating two totally separate programs. Did you read the report? @JulianFantino— Mercedes Stephenson (@CTVMercedes) November 25, 2014
@CTVMercedes S. 3.68 “We concluded that Veterans Affairs Canada is facilitating timely access for veterans to the Rehabilitation Program.”— Julian Fantino (@JulianFantino) November 25, 2014
S 3.20 AG report "not intended to be long-term, and treatment and benefits end once a veteran completes the program" @JulianFantino— Mercedes Stephenson (@CTVMercedes) November 25, 2014
Other Liberal and New Democrat MPs had harsh words for the Conservatives in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
“The Conservatives failed to act, and have failed our veterans,” NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie said during question period. “Stop the excuses and start getting help to our veterans.”
“Too many veterans are struggling alone against mental illness,” added Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Liberal MP Frank Valeriote called the government’s move to add eight operational stress injury clinics a “cynical exercise in damage control.”
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson faced most of the questions on the auditor general’s report on Tuesday. He listed off a number of improvements the government has made to address mental health issues among Canadian veterans, but acknowledged that more needs to be done.
“We look forward to making sure these matters get expedited,” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government will accept the auditor general’s list of recommendations to improve a process he acknowledged as “long and cumbersome.”
Harper also pointed out that 94 per cent of health benefit applicants are eventually deemed eligible for government relief, according to the report.
“We ensure that veterans are paid in full every year,” he said.
With files from the Canadian Press