POLITICS

Auditor General Fall Report: Veterans With PTSD Face 8-Month Waits, Dizzying Paperwork

11/25/2014 10:03 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - Many of Canada's battle-scarred veterans wait up to eight months to find out if they are eligible for long-term, mental-health disability benefits and the department responsible for their care has no idea if its treatment programs are effective, the auditor general said Tuesday.

For a handful of those ex-soldiers, the cumbersome application process is only the beginning of a battle for care that can rage for years.

Michael Ferguson's fall report takes Veterans Affairs Canada — and to a lesser extent, National Defence — to task for saddling psychologically battered veterans with a dizzying array of paperwork and for making them wait an unnecessarily long time for help.

"The department doesn't really seem to have spent time looking at the process from the point of view of the veteran," Ferguson said. "And we think the department needs to put themselves in the shoes of the veterans who are trying to access these services, in order so they can understand the experience of trying to navigate through that whole process just to get an answer."

The Harper government has tried in the last few days to get ahead of the scathing report by announcing an additional $200 million in funding over the next five years, much of which is to expand the department's system of operational stress injury clinics, where soldiers can get a formal diagnosis.

The auditor's report did add that Veterans Affairs is doing a good job facilitating access to short-term rehabilitation services, something a spokeswoman for Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino focused on, almost to exclusion of all else.

"Minister Fantino recommended that the auditor general review the mental health supports in order to help improve our programs and services; we thank the auditor general for making constructive recommendations and we appreciate his finding that access to mental health support is timely," said Ashlee Smith in an email.

Ferguson, at a news conference following the tabling of his report, made a point of distinguishing between access to short- and long-term services.

"When you look at the longer-term program and that is the program where most of the veterans with mental needs are trying to access services; in that case this is where we said: You know what? This taking too long," the auditor said.

Ferguson added: "They really need to improve."

The NDP were quick to describe the government's response as "cynical," and it was left to Defence Minister Rob Nicholson to answer questions about the report because Fantino was in Italy at ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Second World War Italian campaign.

Nicholson defended Fantino's absence, saying the trip is another way for the government to say "thank you" to those who've served.

He cited a list of improvements the government has made to military mental health care, but acknowledged more needs to be done.

"All of those recommendations are accepted and we look forward to making sure these matters gets expedited," he said.

But the NDP's Malcolm Allen said the Conservatives cannot continue to stand up in the Commons and say they support the troops when Ferguson's report systematically demonstrates that in their "greatest hour of need, when they really need the supports" the department hasn't been there.

Liberal veterans critic Frank Valeriote says the government has failed to uphold the country's social obligation to veterans.

Wait times for Veterans Affairs referrals at clinics across the country can reach up to three months, a delay that Ferguson says can "jeopardize" the stabilization and recovery of already fragile individuals.

The auditor wouldn't go as far as to say lives were being put at risk, nor would he link the delays to last year's cluster of suicides among serving members of the military.

The audit also catalogued additional delays veterans face in getting supporting medical records from National Defence.

It takes about four months for a veteran to assemble all the necessary paperwork and another four months for the department to make up its mind, the auditor says.

During the course of the audit, Veterans Affairs officials pushed back at against Ferguson's staff, saying the delays do not prevent ex-soldiers from getting mental-health care and a majority of the applications are completed within a mandated time frame.

The audit also found that almost a quarter of the 15,385 veterans who applied for long-term mental health benefits between 2006 and 2014 were denied.

Only a portion of those individuals — 1,295 — went on to challenge the decisions before the independent veterans appeals board in a process that took between six months and three years.

The audit, which looked at records between April 2006 and August 2014, lays out in stark terms what veterans have been complaining about for years and goes a long way towards explaining their increasing public frustration with the Conservative government, which counts them among its core constituency of voters.

For several years the government has trumpeted how it is removing red tape in the application process, but Ferguson's review found the system is still too "complex and time-consuming" — unnecessarily so, in fact, because some of the information on injuries and circumstances should already be contained in service records.

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