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Politics Tories defend timing of expanded funding for vets in advance of auditor’s report

Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes an infrastructure investment announcement at The Collider Centre at Western University's Advanced Manufacturing Park, in London, Ont., Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.

Dave Chidley/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservative government says it's merely a coincidence that a big mental-health spending package for soldiers, veterans and their families has been unveiled shortly before a report expected to be critical of Ottawa's performance on this file.

On Tuesday, Canada's budget watchdog, the Office of the Auditor-General, will release an audit on whether the Department of Veterans Affairs has "facilitated timely access" for veterans to mental-health services and benefits.

On Sunday, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and Defence Minister Rob Nicholson announced new and expanded mental-health measures that will total $200-million over six years, including an "operational stress injury" clinic in Halifax with satellite offices in seven other cities across Canada from St. John's to Victoria.

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The goal is to "speed access to mental health services for those with mental health injuries," the government said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking Monday in London, Ont., said Ottawa is taking its cue from recommendations from parliamentarians, although he acknowledged the government keeps an eye on what the Office of the Auditor-General has uncovered.

"Departments obviously always take into account the findings of the Auditor-General. At the same time we have recommendations from parliamentary committees and others who have studied veterans funding on where we can fill gaps and improve services and that is what we are responding to," Mr. Harper said.

Government officials on Tuesday insisted there's no connection between the Auditor-General's report and the Sunday announcement.

"The only consideration given by our government on the timing of the $200-million investment into a comprehensive mental health strategy for Veterans and their families yesterday was on making sure that this was done as soon as possible for the benefit of our men and women in uniform and their families. This announcement was in no way shaped by any other factor," Ashlee Smith, press secretary for Mr. Fantino, said in an e-mail.

The Conservatives have come under fire from opposition parties after revelations that Veterans Affairs was unable to spend $1.1-billion over seven years and was required to return the money to the treasury.

NDP MP David Christopherson asked Monday how this could have happened given spending cuts the Tories enacted in recent years.

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"The minister closes regional offices to save money, denies benefits to veterans to save money, denies services to veterans to save money, and yet there was hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for veterans that was going unspent every year," the NDP MP said.

Mr. Harper said the lapsed funding came about because governments typically "overestimate the amount" they think will be claimed or paid out each year in statutory funding – pensions and benefits – to veterans, and any extra money is always returned.

Other measures announced by Mr. Fantino and Mr. Nicholson this week include expanding an outreach campaign for Forces members and their families to promote awareness of mental-health treatments and reduce the "stigma associated with mental health."

Veterans Affairs will develop a veterans-specific, mental-health first aid training program to be delivered to thousands of vets, their families and caregivers.

The government will add additional staff to a peer support program for soldiers, veterans and their families and launch a pilot project to give Forces members and their families two years' access to the Military Family Resources Centres after they leave the military on a medical release exit.

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