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Auditor general 2014 report: Veterans' mental-health services criticized

11/25/2014 10:05 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
The federal government has to assess whether its services are "truly meeting the needs of Canadians," the auditor general said today in releasing audits critical of how long it takes veterans to access services and how a northern food subsidy is provided.

Michael Ferguson found there are too many barriers to veterans getting mental-health services and benefits, including a complex application process and delays in getting their records from the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Ferguson also found Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development hasn't assessed whether retailers are passing on a federal food subsidy to northern consumers since the department started giving the money to stores rather than eligible Canadians.

CBC News will livestream Auditor General Michael Ferguson's news conference at 11:45 a.m. ET.

Other findings in the fall 2014 audit reports: 

- Library and Archives Canada spent $15 million on a digital repository that was ready to go, but never used, and has a backlog of 98,000 boxes of material dating back decades. 

- Money for humanitarian crises is used as intended, but takes up to three months to be delivered. 

- The $9-billion auto-sector bailout helped keep the companies viable but the government didn't report fully to Parliament on it. 

- The RCMP's liaison program on transnational crime works well. 

- The RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces improved how they managed and awarded the 2009 contract to provide moving services for officials.

The report suggests some government departments aren't checking on their programs to ensure they serve the people who need them.

For example, Veterans Affairs "does not collect information or report on the effectiveness" of its mental-health strategy, the report says.

"Veterans Affairs Canada needs to know if the support provided meets the mental-health needs of veterans," it says.

"The department's performance measures focus on the number of veterans served and the timeliness of service rather than on the quality of service and the impact on veterans' lives."

Veterans application process 'slow'

While auditors found the rehabilitation program processes applications quickly, the disability benefits program used by most veterans "is slow, and the application process is complex," the report says.

Veterans Affairs "has not analyzed the time it takes" from a veteran's point of view to find out if he or she is eligible, the report says. It can double from 16 weeks processing time to a total of 32 weeks, or about eight months, because of the complicated application process.

And that's just to get approved for care.

Part of the problem is the 16-week wait to get service and medical records transferred from National Defence.

"In our view, a 16-week wait for service and medical records is still not timely," the audit says, even though it has improved from 18 months.

There can also be an additional wait for assessment at Veterans Affairs' operational stress injury clinics, auditors found: up to four months at one clinic.

The department told auditors the average wait time from referral is about three months rather than the three-week standard it set for itself.

DND also provides mental-health services in its operational and trauma stress support centres, where half of the centres had wait times of almost two months.

Once auditors had surveyed Veterans Affairs, the department proposed a streamlined application form, Ferguson notes in his report.

Auditors also recommended that Veterans Affairs include family members and family doctors in its outreach strategy, as people are most likely to consult their family doctor about mental illness.

Veterans Affairs says it spent $508 million on mental-health services in 2012-13, with about 15,000 veterans and still-serving personnel eligible for mental-health support as of last spring. The report says another 1,000 veterans are self-identified as having a mental-health condition.​

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