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Lionel Desmond and his daughter Aaliyah are shown in a photo from Facebook.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's Veterans Affairs Department has been struggling to process requests for assistance from ill and injured ex-soldiers in a timely manner, with many having to wait more than four months to find out if they qualify, documents show.

Internal reports obtained by The Canadian Press indicate that just over half of veterans who applied for disability benefits between April and July last year received a decision within 16 weeks.

Officials says processing times have been sped up, but the department is still falling short of its own targets and leaving hundreds of ill and injured veterans in limbo for months on end.

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Many are struggling with mental-health injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The revelation comes amid shock over the shooting deaths of four people in Nova Scotia this week, one of them the apparent suicide of a veteran from Canada's war in Afghanistan.

Family members say retired corporal Lionel Desmond had been seeking treatment for PTSD without success following his release from the military in July 2015.

Desmond, who served in Afghanistan in 2007, was found dead Tuesday in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., along with wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his mother Brenda.

Veterans Affairs has said it can't comment on the case, citing privacy laws.

The Nova Scotia government has said it will investigate whether its own health system failed to help Desmond.

The documents, obtained through the Access to Information Act, show that only 52 per cent of the 6,023 applications for disability benefits processed between April and July were handled in less than 16 weeks.

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That fell far short of the department's target of 80 per cent, continuing a trend of slow turnaround times dating back to at least 2014-15.

The documents also show problems when it came to quickly processing applications for additional benefits from ill and injured ex-soldiers, and re-assessing cases where requests for help had been denied.

Separate statistics published on the Veterans Affairs website show PTSD was the third most common medical condition for disability benefits last year, after hearing loss and ringing in the ears.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Alexandre Bellemare said in an email Thursday that improvements had been made, with 61 per cent of decisions for disability benefits now being rendered in less than 16 weeks.

But he acknowledged the department still has a way to go.

"We recognize that there are still areas that require improvement," Bellemare said. "We are continuing to invest time and resources to improve our performance in addressing the needs of veterans and their families."

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Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have said support for military personnel and veterans will be a major focus of the government's new defence policy, due out this spring.

But following the shootings in Nova Scotia, Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne urged an end to troops being forced out of the military for medical reasons before all benefits and services are in place.

Conservative veterans affairs critic John Brassard echoed that call Thursday, saying the government needs to ease the transition from military to civilian life for injured members.

"The cumbersome process can add to stress of transition," Brassard said in an email of the steps injured military personnel must take to leave the Forces.

"When combined with issues that members are having with PTSD and occupational stress injuries, it becomes overwhelming for our veterans."

NDP veterans affairs critic Irene Mathyssen said even 16 weeks for a decision on whether an injured veteran can get assistance is too long, calling it unacceptable that many are having to wait even longer.

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Mathyssen blamed spending cuts and large-scale layoffs at Veterans Affairs under the previous Conservative government for the current problems, and said the Liberals need to act quickly to fix things.

The number of Veterans Affairs employees shrank 21 per cent between 2008 and 2014 as the Tories cut spending to balance the federal budget, resulting in the department's smallest workforce since 1998.

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