By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — When Stephen LaSalle first injured his foot in a military training exercise, he had only heard the stories about what it was like to deal with Veterans Affairs Canada. Five years later, the reservist naval lieutenant can talk about the experience firsthand.
LaSalle is one of more than 23,000 veterans whose disability claims are waiting to be processed by the federal department — a backlog that remains a source of anger, frustration and anxiety despite the Liberal government’s repeated promises to eliminate it.
LaSalle is waiting to find out whether he qualifies for an income-replacement benefit, because the chronic pain and post-traumatic stress he has experienced since his foot was amputated have made it impossible to work.
“I am suffering from not only an amputation, but I’m dealing with my own mental-health injuries from everything,” he says from his home in Niagara Falls, Ont. “So without the IRB, I will have no income.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay agreed Tuesday that wait times at the department are too long, but insisted the Liberal government has made progress by hiring hundreds of temporary staff to process claims.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, the minister said wait times “have come down substantially” — his department is taking 25 weeks to process initial claims from veterans, as compared to more than 43 weeks last year.
Yet the 25-week average doesn’t take into account how long many claims sit before the clock officially starts, including those deemed incomplete or that are still awaiting assignment to an adjudicator.
That lag time has long been a source of concern and criticism from advocates, particularly because about 17,000 of the 30,000 disability applications held by the department at the end of September fell into both categories.
MacAulay’s average also don’t include the time that veterans are forced to wait for a reassessment or appeal if their initial claim is rejected.
In a report released earlier this month, veterans ombudsperson Nishika Jardine took issue with the delays many former service members face before finding out if they qualify for financial and medical support.
“The bottom line is that veterans are still waiting more than double the published service standard for disability claims to be decided,” Jardine said in an interview.
The government’s stated target for processing 80 per cent of claims is 16 weeks.
“Those who struggle with access to health care or with being able to pay for things out of pocket, those are the veterans that I’m concerned about,” Jardine added. “That impact on their health and well-being is probably tangible.”
Meanwhile, new figures produced by Veterans Affairs show the number of unprocessed claims sitting with the department has remained largely unchanged, at around 30,000, over the past nine months.
At the same time, the department received about 6,000 more applications than it processed in the last quarter, raising concerns about a resurgence in the backlog and wait times.
The issue has been picked up by the parliamentary budget office and auditor general Karen Hogan, who earlier this year accused the federal government of failing to keep its promise to take care of those who are injured while in uniform.
The Liberal government has spent millions of dollars hiring hundreds of temporary workers to clear the backlog, which MacAulay noted on Tuesday even as he sought to blame the current woes on staffing cuts by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
“What we inherited, they expected it would take 10 years to bring Veterans Affairs back to where it was,” he said. “It is back where it needs to be.”
Testifying before the House of Commons veterans affairs committee last month, Hogan took issue with the use of temporary workers and what she described as ad hoc funding before reiterating her previous call for a long-term staffing plan at Veterans Affairs.
“When employees leave the department because their position is not permanent, temporary funding is not going to help improve things,” she said. “That is why we recommended that funding be a bit more stable and that a long-term view be taken.”
Other solutions have also been repeatedly raised by veterans’ organizations — and largely ignored by the government. Those include granting disabled veterans benefits and services when they apply, and using an audit function to catch potential cheaters.
Brian Forbes is executive director of the War Amps and national director of the National Council of Veterans Associations, an umbrella group for 60 veterans’ organizations, and has been seeking such a change for years. He said nearly all PTSD claims are approved, but the wait times still reach nearly a full year.
“We have a couple of cases that are at a year and a half,” he says. “Why are we waiting so long to approve 96 per cent of the cases?”
Forbes isn’t the only one calling for such an approach; a House of Commons committee recommended last year that the government amend existing legislation to allow for the pre-approval of claims so veterans can get support sooner.
The Royal Canadian Legion is also supportive of such a move, at least when it comes to the most common injuries and ailments.
“We definitely call for that for the most common ones,” said Carolyn Hughes, the legion’s deputy director of veterans services. “Let’s get them out of the way and do an audit later.”
And while advocates did credit the government with recently letting veterans have access to mental-health services while waiting for their applications to be processed, they questioned why a similar approach hasn’t been taken for physical injuries.
LaSalle is fortunate that the legion has agreed to help expedite his application. He can nonetheless relate to the stress and frustration that thousands of other disabled veterans are experiencing as their claims sit on a desk.
“It’s just one more stressful thing when you’re trying to focus on recovery and do everything you can to get yourself to a good place.”