The Conservative government is facing renewed criticism over its treatment of Canadian veterans after the Auditor-General reported many vets are waiting months – and in some cases years – to access mental-health disability benefits.
The fall 2014 report from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson outlines a web of bureaucratic delays that veterans face when applying for help, including outright rejections of benefits that are mostly overturned when veterans launch lengthy appeals.
"I think it's important to understand that the services Veterans Affairs funds and makes available to veterans are important services," Mr. Ferguson said at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday. "It's important for [veterans] to get access to that long-term care as quickly as possible."
Canadian veterans are eligible to receive mental-health services, including psychological care and prescription drugs, which are not covered by provincial health plans. To access this care, veterans must provide evidence that their condition is related to their military service.
The Auditor-General found that whether it's gaining access to military records or waiting for an appointment to visit operational stress injury assessment clinics, veterans face several factors that contribute to delays in getting help.
Of the 15,385 vets who applied for mental-health disability benefits between April, 2006, and June, 2014, 24 per cent were denied benefits. The report said 1,297 veterans who were denied benefits challenged the decision and 65 per cent were successful. A victory on appeal took between six months and three years for 695 veterans, while a further 128 vets waited from three to more than seven years.
The report also found that Veterans Affairs is not meeting its own target of providing 80 per cent of applicants with a decision on their eligibility within 16 weeks from the date the department considers the application to be "complete." Instead, that target was met 75 per cent of the time last year. The Auditor-General said actual waiting times are twice as long given the delays that occur before the department considers an application complete.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted the report gave a positive review of a separate rehabilitation program for veterans, but acknowledged that more must be done for mental-health disability claims.
"The Auditor-General did note that the process is unnecessarily long and difficult. For that reason, the department has accepted those recommendations," he said in response to opposition questions in the House of Commons.
A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino responded to the report by pointing to Sunday's announcement of $200-million over five years for veterans' mental health.
The government receives advance copies of reports from the Auditor-General, and opposition critics said Sunday's announcement of new spending was clearly aimed at putting out a positive message ahead of bad news for the government.
Michael Blais, the president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said the findings of the Auditor-General validated the work of his group. "We have been saying this for two years now, that the waiting times were too long, that the consequences were real because of the delays," Mr. Blais said.
"To have the Auditor-General come out and substantiate that was pretty good for us."
At a military health research conference in Toronto, General Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing the Canadian Forces.
"Our operations, quite frankly, are leaving a mark on our people," he told the audience.
Gen. Lawson said the military has established a strong health-care system to help soldiers deal with mental scars, noting there are 26 mental-health clinics as well as other avenues for care. He believes progress has been made on removing the stigma around seeking treatment.
Mark Zamorski, a senior medical epidemiologist with the Canadian Forces health services group, said the mental-health system has improved greatly over the past dozen years. Still, post-traumatic stress disorder rates among soldiers have increased, illustrating that the improvements don't outweigh the impact of the Afghanistan mission, he told the audience.
Mr. Fantino's name and photo were on the conference agenda as a scheduled speaker Tuesday, but the minister's office said he had never planned to attend. Mr. Fantino was not available for comment because he was in Italy to participate in events marking the 70th anniversary of the Italian campaign of the Second World War.
An announcement of his trip to Italy was sent out in early August. But conference organizers said Mr. Fantino confirmed his attendance at their event in late summer, and they did not know until three or four weeks ago that it was possible he would not be there.
With files from Renata D'Aliesio in Toronto