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FILE PHOTO: A sign is placed on a truck windshield as members of the advocacy group Banished Veterans protest outside the Veterans Affairs office in Halifax on Thursday, June 16, 2016. New figures show many veterans have had a hard time getting anyone to pick up when they call Veterans Affairs Canada's toll-free line for information or assistance with nearly one in five hanging up before their call is answered.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

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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