The Liberals came to power promising to hire hundreds of front-line workers at Veterans Affairs Canada but only a fraction of those jobs have materialized even as the level of service to those who were injured in the line of military duty remains far below departmental standards.
The head of the union that represents employees of the veterans' department, which has seen its staffing levels shrink dramatically since 2010, says hundreds of customer-service agents are needed right now to provide vets with the assistance they need, and many more will be required as the aging work force moves into retirement.
The number of workers is historically low – and threatens to fall further due to attrition – even as many veterans of Afghanistan try to navigate the federal system while suffering from operational stress injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder.
The question of service standards for injured former soldiers came into question this past week when Lionel Desmond, an Afghanistan vet with PTSD, fatally shot his mother, wife and daughter, and then turned the gun on himself. Relatives say Mr. Desmond had trouble accessing medical care, which does not necessarily mean he was frustrated with the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy.
But the department's own statistics, which are posted on its website, suggest many veterans must wait far longer than the department's own service standards dictate. Just 52 per cent of applications for disability benefits are processed within the departmental target of 16 weeks. Just 65 per cent of vets in need of long-term care received it within the target of 10 weeks. And just 53 per cent had access to the career-transition program within the target of four weeks.
Carl Gannon, the national president of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, says the staffing issues are directly to blame for the delays and the impact on veterans can be devastating.
"I will tell you that a lot of our case-managed clients have operational stress injuries like PTSD and the reality is that [the delays] can set them off … because they need help, they've been waiting for this help," said Mr. Gannon in an interview. "Everything that they have inside of them, every little gasp of air that they have, is trying to get them to that point where they are going to get the support that they need. And when it doesn't come, really, really, really bad things can happen."
The Liberal government came to power promising to hire 400 new service-delivery staff at Veterans Affairs after cuts imposed by the former Conservative government saw the number of workers drop from about 4,500 in 2010 to 2,873 in 2014-15.
As of March 31, 2016, there were 2,272 full-time employees, the number that was left after a veteran's hospital employing more than 700 people was transferred from federal jurisdiction to the province of Quebec.
The department says it has hired 330 new front-line staff. But Mr. Gannon said those were largely the result of moves by the Tories to add staff in the months before last year's election. Only about 75 new jobs have been created under the Liberals, he said.
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says the delays in processing, and the fact the department is not meeting its own service standards, can be attributed to an increase in the number of veterans claiming serving-related injuries.
"In the last year, we processed 27 per cent more disability-benefits claims than the previous year," Mr. Hehr said in a statement. "We are working toward a case-worker-to-veteran ratio of 25 to 1, whereas under the previous government that number was closer to 40 to 1. Since forming government, we have reopened VAC service offices across the country, increased service to the North and invested $5.6-billion into new and existing programs and services for veterans and their families."
But Mr. Gannon said there are regions of the country where the case-worker-to-veteran ratio remains above 40, and the problems of slow processing times and the staff shortages "are literally one and the same."
Both John Brassard, the Conservative critic for veterans affairs, and Irene Mathyssen, the NDP critic, say the government needs to look at a plan put forward in a report released last year by Canadians Forces Ombudsman Gary Walbourne that would see more of the work to transition soldiers to civilian life done by the Department of National Defence before they leave the military. Mr. Hehr did not commit to following the recommendations of that report
The department is trying to hire more people, said Mr. Gannon, but it has not been easy because few people want to work at Veterans Affairs since the morale is so bad. The department's customer-service centre is located in Prince Edward Island, which also is a factor.
"We need an injection of literally 500 more staff in order to really break through what we need to break through because even as those [staffing] numbers go down, situations are more complex, more individuals are coming back with operational stress injuries like PTSD and traumatic head injuries," said Mr. Gannon. "On the front lines, people are still really, really depressed. People are still dealing with employment burnout and their workloads still really haven't changed."