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

Canada’s Veterans Ombudsman says significant gaps remain in the financial security promised to men and women who retire from the Canadian Armed Forces, especially those who leave with a service-related injury.

Guy Parent, who has served as ombudsman for nearly eight years, says successive governments have made real improvements to the way veterans are compensated since the New Veterans Charter replaced the old Pension Act in 2006. Ottawa, he said, has taken action on 46 of the 64 recommendations made by his office to address systemic problems at the Veterans Affairs department.

But, Mr. Parent said in a report card to be released on Tuesday – a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail – there are still long-standing issues that create significant hardships for former members of the armed forces.

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At the top of the list, he said, is the fact that some injured veterans are forgoing treatment in the first months after their retirement because the costs are not paid by the Veterans Affairs department until the therapy has been approved by bureaucrats. The decisions can take up to 50 weeks, he said, and the medical services are not covered retroactively.

“People may go a year without accessing treatment,” Mr. Parent said on Monday in a telephone interview. "Some of them may be in deteriorating health status because they don’t access treatment because they have to pay out of their own pocket.”

That was not the case under the old Pension Act, he said. Before 2006, veterans with service-related injuries were reimbursed for their medical expenses from the time they applied for coverage.

Veterans Affairs says it does, in fact, authorize and reimburse rehabilitation benefits – notably on mental-health treatment – before a claim can be adjudicated. But the ombudsman’s office says the criteria for those payments is narrow.

First, not all vets are eligible for rehabilitation. And second, only conditions that are deemed to be a barrier to rehabilitation are eligible for coverage before a claim is approved by Veterans Affairs.

If, for instance, a veteran who falls under the New Veterans Charter, which is now called the Veterans Well-being Act, has a back condition and needs physiotherapy, the ombudsman’s office says those costs will not be paid by the government until Veterans Affairs gives the green light, and there is no retroactive reimbursement.

Veterans Affairs pointed out that the ombudsman’s report card shows progress has been made in many areas.

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“Is there more to do? Yes, and that’s why we remain focused on the outstanding items in the mandate letter” that was given by the Prime Minister to Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan, said Alex Wellstead, a spokesman for Mr. O’Regan. “While we appreciate the work [Mr. Parent] does and give [his recommendations] every consideration, we also take into account voices from across the spectrum of the veteran community, especially veterans and their families, when making our priorities.”

The ombudsman’s report card points out a number of his recommendations that have been ignored, many related to financial security.

For instance, the military pays a death benefit to spouses and dependent children of members who die of a service-related injury or illness. But Mr. Parent said those benefits should also be available to the extended families of soldiers, sailors and aviators who die without a spouse or common-law partner and who have no offspring.

“With Afghanistan, we have the experience of young members, victims of the conflict, who were looked after by siblings or parents and, in their case, if their loss of life was due to service, their death benefit is just lost,” Mr. Parent said. “We recommend that single members who are injured be allowed to identify some beneficiary.”

On dental benefits, members who retire after serving for 10 years have the option of joining the public-service dental plan. But if a veteran must leave the military before that time, they lose those dental benefits. And that can be especially hard on someone with young children who is forced out of the military because of an injury, Mr. Parent said.

The Veterans Affairs department says it does not have any control over the public-service dental benefits and it is the military that required a decade of service before a retiring member is eligible for that plan.

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