'Not acceptable': Thousands of disabled veterans wait more than a year for benefits
Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Friday November 23, 2018 in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
CTVNews.ca Staff with files from Annie Bergeron-Oliver
Published Wednesday, November 28, 2018 9:16PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, November 29, 2018 7:48PM EST
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan agrees with the Conservative opposition that it’s unacceptable that thousands of veterans waited more than a year to have their benefits applications processed.
“Not acceptable to veterans. Not acceptable to me,” O’Regan told CTV News on Wednesday.
“We’ve had some significant challenges with backlogs and I’m reminded of that every time I go to a veterans’ town hall,” he added.
Figures show that 3,110 -- or nine per cent -- of the 36,437 applications received by Veterans Affairs in the 2017-18 fiscal year have taken more than a year to be reviewed. Only 15,949 -- 43 per cent -- were processed within the government’s 16-week target.
O’Regan blamed the delay on a 32 per cent increase in disability claims since the Liberals took office in 2015, and the fact that the Conservatives had cut about 1,000 workers from the department.
“I’m not making any excuses but I am trying to give an explanation as to why,” O’Regan said.
“These are benefits and services that these veterans and their families deserve,” he added. “They are owed these benefits and services.”
O’Regan said the government has allocated $42 million over two years to speed up processing but it takes time to hire people, in part because many of the positions require bilingualism. He said 470 front-line staff have already been added.
“What we can do is keep doing what we’re doing, which is keep it a priority, put as many resources there as we possibly can, and hire front line staff as quickly as we can,” he said.
“We’re also putting a lot of digitization effort behind the scenes so we can get stuff done quicker,” O’Regan added.
Conservative veterans affairs critic Phil McColeman called the numbers “shocking” and said they are evidence that the system needs to be “reengineered.”
“Perhaps we have a capacity problem,” McColeman told CTV News. “But throwing money at it and just doing that is not sufficient,” he said.
McColeman accused the Liberals of failing to take “simple steps” that could speed up the process, like forcing the military to automatically transfer medical records to Veterans Affairs rather than making the department “start from zero.”
“Veterans Affairs has to force that new veteran to get all new medical reports on their situation, a complete new file,” he said. “If they could accept (the military records), then you’re on the road to accepting a claim.”
McColeman said that soldiers have committed to “making the ultimate sacrifice” if need be, and the long waits for benefits are seen “as a sign, really, of disrespect.”