Vets face long wait for benefits

The Prince George Citizen - - News -

The long de­lays many vet­er­ans face when ap­ply­ing to the gov­ern­ment for as­sis­tance for ser­vice-re­lated in­juries have reached a new mile­stone.

Former ser­vice mem­bers have long been promised that most will know within 16 weeks whether they are el­i­gi­ble for fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion or med­i­cal treat­ment.

But Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada says the av­er­age wait time for ini­tial ap­pli­ca­tions is now twice as long – 32 weeks – as re­quests for as­sis­tance con­tinue to out­pace the depart­ment’s abil­ity to pro­cess them.

That rep­re­sents a dra­matic in­crease from De­cem­ber when, ac­cord­ing to se­cret brief­ing notes pro­vided to then-vet­er­ans af­fairs min­is­ter Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould, the av­er­age wait time for such ap­pli­ca­tions was 24 weeks.

The in­crease comes amid con­cerns about the im­pact such de­lays have on vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing added stress and frus­tra­tion that can be par­tic­u­larly detri­men­tal to those suf­fer­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal in­juries and trauma.

Vet­er­ans om­buds­man Craig Dal­ton told a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee last month that wait times were the “No. 1 com­plaint” that former ser­vice mem­bers make to his of­fice.

The gov­ern­ment is hop­ing to rein in the ever-grow­ing wait times, which have also re­sulted in a 40,000-case back­log, af­ter hir­ing and train­ing hun­dreds of tem­po­rary staff.

While the staff were hired through a one-time, $42-mil­lion cash in­jec­tion in last year’s fed­eral bud­get to specif­i­cally ad­dress the back­log, they have only re­cently been deemed ready to start mak­ing a dent in the prob­lem.

The depart­ment has also im­ple­mented a num­ber of mea­sures to cut red tape and speed up de­ci­sion-mak­ing so vet­er­ans can more quickly access ser­vices and get benefits.

“En­sur­ing vet­er­ans receive the benefits they de­serve is a top pri­or­ity for our gov­ern­ment,” Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Min­is­ter Lawrence Ma­cAulay’s spokesman, Alex Well­stead, said in an email.

“We’ve made good progress in the last four years by in­creas­ing the benefits and ser­vices avail­able, how­ever we know time­li­ness is an area we need to im­prove.”

Yet Vir­ginia Vail­lan­court, na­tional pres­i­dent of the Union of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Em­ploy­ees, says what is re­ally needed is more full-time staff as the depart­ment’s oper­a­tional bud­get has not kept up with de­mand for ser­vices.

Hun­dreds of po­si­tions at Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada were axed un­der the pre­vi­ous Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment as it tried to elim­i­nate the fed­eral deficit. While some have since been hired back, the depart­ment hasn’t fully re­cov­ered.

A re­port tabled in the House of Com­mons in March showed the depart­ment planned to have around 3,200 em­ploy­ees this fis­cal year, which is where it stood in a decade ago, ex­clud­ing staff at Ste. Anne’s hospi­tal in Que­bec.

The hospi­tal and its staff were trans­ferred to the prov­ince in 2016.

Yet the same re­port pro­jected staffing levels to fall again next year by around 300 po­si­tions, which it linked to the end of the tem­po­rary fund­ing for ad­dress­ing the back­log and im­ple­ment­ing pro­grams like a new pen­sion sys­tem.

The re­port also shows the depart­ment’s bud­get de­clin­ing be­gin­ning next year “due to the end­ing of tem­po­rary fund­ing re­lated to the Bud­get 2018 ini­tia­tive to in­crease ser­vice-de­liv­ery ca­pac­ity and ex­pe­dite re­pairs to graves.”

While the gov­ern­ment could opt to ex­tend the fund­ing for tem­po­rary staff, Vail­lan­court said the only solution is to hire more full-time em­ploy­ees as de­mand con­tin­ues to in­crease for ser­vices.

“We know that even with that ad­di­tional 300 staff that are there, we still are not meet­ing the stan­dards that are in place,” she said. “So they don’t need to get rid of the 300, they need to add and make them per­ma­nent.”

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