When Stephen LaSalle was first injured in military training, he had only heard stories of dealing with Veterans Affairs Canada. After five years, a Reserve Navy Lieutenant can talk directly about the experience.
LaSalle is one of more than 23,000 veterans whose disability claims are awaiting federal processing – a backlog that remains a source of anger, frustration and anxiety despite repeated promises from the Liberal government to eliminate it.
LaSalle is waiting to find out if he is eligible for income replacement benefits because the chronic pain and post-traumatic stress he has experienced since his foot was amputated has kept him from working.
“Not only am I having to amputate, but I’m dealing with my own mental health injuries,” he said from his home in Niagara Falls, Ontario. “So without the IRB, I would have no income.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay on Tuesday agreed the department’s wait was too long but insisted the Liberal government had made progress by hiring hundreds of casual staff to process claims.
In an interview with Canadian media, the minister said the wait time “has been significantly reduced” — his department takes 25 weeks to process initial applications from veterans, compared with more than 43 weeks last year.
However, the 25-week average did not take into account how many claims were made before the clock officially started, including those deemed incomplete or still awaiting assignment to adjudicators.
That lag time has long been a source of concern and criticism from advocates, especially since about 17,000 of the 30,000 disability applications the department held at the end of September fell into those two categories.
MacAulay’s average also doesn’t include the time veterans are forced to wait for a reassessment or appeal after their original claim was denied.
In a report released earlier this month, Veterans Ombudsman Nishika Jardine questioned the delays many former service members faced before determining their eligibility for financial and medical support.
“On top of that, veterans are still waiting for more than double the published disability claim service standard,” Jardine said in an interview.
The government’s target for processing 80% of claims is 16 weeks.
“Those who have difficulty accessing healthcare or being able to pay out-of-pocket are the veterans I’m concerned about,” Jardine added. “The impact on their health and well-being may be tangible.”
Meanwhile, new data produced by the Department of Veterans Affairs shows the number of outstanding claims at the department has remained largely unchanged at about 30,000 over the past nine months.
At the same time, the department received about 6,000 more applications than it processed in the previous quarter, raising concerns that backlogs and waiting times are rising again.
The issue has been raised by the Parliamentary Budget Office and Auditor-General Karen Hogan, who earlier this year accused the federal government of failing to deliver on commitments to care for people injured while in uniform.
The Liberal government has spent millions hiring hundreds of casual workers to clear the backlog, Macaulay noted on Tuesday, even as he tries to blame the current woes on layoffs by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
“What we inherited, they expected it would take 10 years to get the Veterans Affairs back to the way it was,” he said. “It’s back where it needs to be.”
Testifying before the House of Commons Veterans Affairs Committee last month, Hogan challenged the use of casual workers and what she said was temporary funding, before reiterating her previous calls at the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a long-term staffing plan.
“Temporary funding doesn’t help improve things when employees leave the department because their positions are not permanent,” she said. “That’s why we’re suggesting more stability in funding and taking a long-term view.”
Veterans groups have also repeatedly proposed other solutions, but they have been largely ignored by the government. These include providing benefits and services for disabled veterans when applying, and using auditing features to catch potential cheaters.
Brian Forbes is executive director of War Amps and national director of the National Veterans Association Council, an umbrella organization of 60 veterans’ organizations that has been seeking such a change for years. He said nearly all PTSD claims were approved, but the wait time was still close to a full year.
“We have several cases that take a year and a half,” he said. “Why do we wait so long for 96% of cases to be approved?”
Forbes is not alone in calling for this approach. A House of Commons committee last year recommended the government amend existing legislation to allow pre-approval of claims so veterans can access support more quickly.
The Royal Canadian Legion also supports the move, at least when it comes to the most common injuries.
“We absolutely demand that for the most common cases,” said Caroline Hughes, deputy director of Veterans Services. “Let’s leave them out and audit them later.”
While advocates do believe the government has recently allowed veterans to access mental health services while they wait for their applications to be processed, they question why a similar approach has not been taken for physical injuries.
Luckily for LaSalle, the Legion agreed to help expedite his application. Still, he can understand the stress and frustration that thousands of other disabled veterans experience when their demands are put on the table.
“It’s just a more stressful thing when you’re trying to focus on recovery and doing everything you can to get yourself into a good place.”
— Lee Berthiaume, Canadian Press
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