Ottawa ditches longer deadlines for answering veterans’ requests for service
By The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – The federal government has backed off a controversial plan to give bureaucrats more time to respond to disabled veterans seeking benefits and support for their service-related injuries.
Yet while that decision is being welcomed by some, the government is facing fresh questions about how it plans to meet its existing targets for helping veterans, which it has been consistently missing for years.
Veterans Affairs Canada first floated the idea of lengthening its timelines last fall following criticism over former service members waiting months longer than promised to get support – or even find out whether they qualified for help.
Veterans are told they can expect to know within 16 weeks whether they simply qualify for disability benefits, for example. But the average wait time is between 23 and 29 weeks, with many forced to wait much longer.
Those delays, which have also resulted in the backlog of applications for disability benefits growing to 40,000, have been found to add stress and frustration for injured veterans as they wait for medical or financial assistance.
Veterans Affairs said it wanted to give injured ex-soldiers a more “realistic” assessment of when they could expect to hear back about their requests of assistance.
The proposal was met with criticism that the department just wanted to move its own goalposts.
Now Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s spokesman is confirming the idea has been scrapped following consultations with veterans and their families, and that Ottawa will continue using the existing targets.
“After travelling across the country and hearing directly from hundreds of veterans and their families, it was clear that changing the service standards didn’t address their concerns,” said spokesman Alex Wellstead. “Our focus then – as it remains today – is continuing to work on getting benefits and services to veterans faster and more efficiently.”
Yet there were also questions on Tuesday about how the government planned to ensure Veterans Affairs starts meeting its targets after years of poor performance that has led to long delays and wait times.
“This is something we’ve heard time and time again,” said Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, which focuses on helping former service members with mental-health injuries. “The wait time for approvals continues to be an issue.”
The government blames the problem on an explosion of new requests for assistance over the past few years as more veterans have come forward for help, and says it is cutting red tape and hiring temporary staff to speed things up.
But officials also acknowledged in briefing notes prepared for Jody Wilson-Raybould upon her appointment as veterans-affairs minister in January that they were falling farther and farther behind.
“While output and overall volume completed has increased, these gains were consistently outpaced by the number of veterans applying for disability benefits,” reads one briefing note, which The Canadian Press obtained through the access-to-information law.
The note, which was delivered to Wilson-Raybould before her resignation from cabinet a few weeks later as part of the SNC-Lavalin affair, added that there were no indications the explosion in applications was about to end.
The only solution is to invest more resources into the department, including hiring additional staff, to handle the increased requests for assistance, said Virginia Vaillancourt, national president of the Union of Veterans’ Affairs Employees.
Veterans Affairs figures show the department had 2,730 employees at the end of March 2018, which was nearly 500 more than when the Trudeau government took power and started undoing years of Conservative-era cuts.
But there are still hundreds fewer employees in the department now than a decade ago, even when accounting for the province of Quebec taking responsibility for the veterans’ hospital in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, just outside Montreal, in April 2016.
“It is great that they’re maintaining the service standards, but they’re not maintaining the service level to the veterans because they don’t have the staff,” said Vaillancourt. “How can you expect to ever meet the service standards and the quality of care for the veterans if you’re not even moving the marker on the staffing levels?”