Veterans seeking benefits for mental illness and injury are getting a raw deal from the federal government when it comes to timely access, a report from the auditor general confirms.
And officials with a local disabled veterans’ rights group say the finding – including that one in six Canadian vets with mental-health issues is waiting more than eight months to find out if their benefits have been approved – proves the outlook for those injured while serving their country has only dimmed in the past three years.
“Veterans matter – and they’re being mistreated,” said Gerry Lenoski, vice-president of the White Rock-based Equitas Society, which is currently pursuing a class-action suit on behalf of disabled veterans.
“It doesn’t square with Canadian values.”
Lenoski said he is not surprised at outrage being expressed in the wake of Michael Ferguson’s report, which was issued Tuesday. It adds more fuel to a fire of concern over the government’s overall approach to veterans, he said.
Lenoski said it is particularly disturbing at a time when reports have emerged that Veterans Affairs had returned $1.13 billion in unspent money to the federal Treasury since 2006, while eight Veterans Affairs offices across the country were closed earlier this year and the department received budget cuts and layoffs.
“You’d think that we would have reached a tipping point, given the litany of outrage over (Veterans Affairs),” Lenoski said.
“It hasn’t got better – it’s deteriorated. You wonder how much worse it can get before a political effect takes place at the ballot box.”
Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs minister Julian Fantino – out of the country this week observing ceremonies commemorating Canadian service in Italy during the Second World War – has issued a statement that the Conservative government “accepts all of the recommendations made in the auditor general’s report.”
Fantino said he’d recommended a year ago that Ferguson review mental-health supports and, even before receiving the results, had announced a $200-million program of “expanded mental-health initiatives.”
While Ferguson’s report acknowledges some new government health supports for veterans are working – including a rehabilitation program that gave timely support to some 4,600 recently released veterans with mental-health conditions – access to the disability benefits program, the usual route for seeking mental-health services, is “slow, and the application process is complex.”
According to the report, out of close to 3,000 veterans applying for mental-health support last year, 700 had not received an answer in four months and 500 were still awaiting word after eight months. Such a delay could threaten a veteran’s “stabilization and recovery,” the report states.
In his statement, Fantino said he has launched a Mental Health Services for Veterans Action Plan to address the issue.
“We will improve the disability benefits application process and reduce barriers to timely access to benefits,” he said.
“In recent months, we have hired additional people across Canada to eliminate the backlog of unprocessed claims and help speed the transfer of any medical and service documents required for the application process.”
Fantino also promised to strengthen outreach efforts, invest in treatment and develop a mental-health first-aid program for veterans and their families.
Lenoski said Equitas filed with the B.C. Supreme Court in the fall of 2012 to launch a class-action suit on behalf of all disabled veterans – including those with post-traumatic stress disorder – challenging the federal government’s New Veterans Charter, which reduced benefits for those disabled in the line of duty to a single lump payment.
Equitas is arguing that disabled Canadian Forces members receive equal, lifelong benefits consistent with the standard of compensation programs received by Canadian workers.
Two years in, Lenoski said, the Supreme Court is still hearing arguments for approving the suit, including an appeal from the federal government that asserts it does not have a social contract with Canadian Forces veterans.
Equitas is arguing that a promise made by former prime minister Robert Borden to Canadian soldiers fighting in the First World War – that they would be protected if maimed, and their families looked after if they were killed – amounts to a social covenant.
“I find it interesting that on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War that the federal government is arguing that Sir Robert Borden’s undertaking was simply a political promise,” Lenoski said.