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Francophone veterans face longer wait times for benefits approvals, study finds

Francophone veterans wait longer than anglophone veterans to find out whether Veterans Affairs Canada will pay for their out-of-pocket medical expenses. And some less urgent cases are being processed ahead of those in greater need.

Those are among the findings of a study to be released on Wednesday by Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent, who has repeatedly highlighted the problem of lengthy wait times for benefits approvals since his appointment eight years ago. It is the most common complaint lodged with his office and creates situations in which veterans do not seek medical help for serious ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder because they are forced to pay out of pocket for treatment.

To obtain hard data about the situation, the ombudsman’s staff analyzed 1,000 applications for disability benefits. Applications marked “Red Zone,” which means the veteran is in serious medical or financial difficulty, were generally processed on time. But the survey revealed 70 per cent of the rest of the applications were not processed within the 16-week service standard set by Veterans Affairs.

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That creates huge frustrations, Mr. Parent said. “It’s about being told you will get an answer within a certain amount of time and, in fact, you don’t,” he said Tuesday in an interview.

Related: Veterans Ombudsman says Ottawa is ignoring key recommendations, making vets wait to have treatments covered

Read more: Senators say injured soldiers who retire still waiting months for needed benefits

The study revealed anglophone applicants wait 24 weeks, on average, for a decision about benefits while francophone applicants wait an average of 45 weeks. Half of all francophone applications examined took more than a year to complete.

The ombudsman’s report said the delays appear to be occurring at the final adjudication stage, and may be related to the fact that just 18 per cent of the department’s nurse adjudicators have the language proficiency to make decisions about francophone applications.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a statement that more francophone adjudicators have been recently hired, which should reduce the disparity. And, Mr. O’Regan said this year’s federal budget invested $42.8-million to improve service times for veterans.

According to the study, the date at which the clock starts ticking on the processing time of a benefits application can vary considerably depending on whether the applicant is still a serving member of the military, and who completed the application. In addition, veterans who are over the age of 80 are put at the front of the queue, even when their cases are less urgent than a younger veteran with a serious health or financial problem.

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“We recommend that they do a triage based on needs,” Mr. Parent said.

The study also found that, while male vets waited 28 weeks on average to have their benefits approved, female vets waited an average of 32 weeks. The ombudsman’s office says the small number of women in the survey undermines the statistical significance of the gender-based results. But, it also says “the evidence is clear that the wait times for males and females are different.” Mr. Parent said his office did not explore the reason for the discrepancy.

“In meeting the needs of veterans and their families, gender and language should not make a difference,” Mr. Parent said.

Mr. O’Regan said the discrepancy between male and female application wait times “is unacceptable, and we are conducting a gender-based analysis to understand why this is occurring so we can fix it.”

Separately on Tuesday, Mr. O’Regan and Harjit Sajjan, the Defence Minister, announced the government was reintroducing a veterans identification card. A similar card, which was discontinued in 2016, was available to those who had performed 10 years of active duty in the military. The new cards will be provided to anyone who has completed basic training – something Mr. Parent has been recommending for the past six years.

Mr. O’Regan said he has heard repeatedly from veterans that the cards should be reintroduced “because it gives them the recognition they deserve.”

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