Canada's new Minister of Veterans Affairs says he wants the staff in his department to look closely at situations in which benefits have been unfairly denied to former military personnel and to learn what they could have done better.
Erin O'Toole, who was appointed to the cabinet earlier this month after Julian Fantino was demoted for his handling of the file, told reporters on Wednesday that his department is working to rectify problems highlighted in an Auditor-General's report last fall that looked at mental-health services for vets.
That report found, among other things, that the application process for disability benefits is too complex and time-consuming, and that there are long waiting times at operational stress-injury clinics.
The government acted before the report was released to announce a new operational stress-injury clinic for Halifax and the expansion of nine satellite clinics across the country. And, Mr. O'Toole said, the department has begun the job of simplifying the application process for benefits.
The Auditor-General also found that Veterans Affairs was not analyzing its appeal process to identify systemic problems.
Of all of the veterans who applied for benefits between April 2006 and June 2014, 24 per cent were denied. More than half of those denials (65 per cent) were overturned on appeal. But the auditor found it takes months, and sometimes years, for those appeals to be decided and for veterans to get the benefits to which they are entitled.
When asked what he is doing to rectify that problem, Mr. O'Toole said he wants the staff in his department to examine cases in which benefits were wrongly denied and to determine what they could have done better.
"We want the department to learn more from that first contact," he said. "In some cases, it might have been incomplete information, but if there was an assessment change in the review, we want to learn from that, so that we can avoid that."
Mr. O'Toole also said the Veterans Affairs department will soon be getting its own Surgeon-General. That person will be responsible for increasing the mental-health expertise within the department to better handle cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, occupational stress, and a range of other mental-health issues experienced by veterans. "If we can get better expertise right at the front line, understanding these injuries," he said, "that'll be a faster process."
In fighting a court case launched by group of severely disabled veterans in British Columbia who say they are being inadequately compensated, the government has said the Crown has no sacred duty to care for the military personnel who fight on Canada's behalf. That outraged many veterans and advocacy groups.
In Question Period this week, Peter Stoffer, the Veterans Affairs critic for the New Democrats, has repeatedly asked Mr. O'Toole if the government accepts that "there is a moral, social, legal and fiduciary responsibility to care for the heroes of our country that the government asked to put in harm's way."
Mr. O'Toole has not provided a direct answer.
When reporters asked him on Wednesday to explain why he believes that lawsuit is worth fighting, he said he did not want to comment on matters before the court. "But I will just say this," said Mr. O'Toole, "that it's the first matter that I looked into as minister."