Former members of the Canadian military who are struggling with mental health problems say they're being denied benefits from Veterans Affairs to cover travel costs to their psychologists and other medical professionals.
Two veterans said they've received notice from the department that their travel coverage to psychologists and psychiatrists would end last summer, leaving them on the hook for the payments if they wanted to continue seeing them.
Steve Bird said he was told in June that Veterans Affairs would no longer pay costs associated with his regular trips from his home in southeastern Saskatchewan to Saskatoon to see a team of health-care providers.
Instead, he said the department wanted him to find a psychiatrist and psychologist in Regina, which is about two hours closer.
But Bird, who says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was medically released from the Forces in 2008, said he has made progress with his doctors and switching psychiatrists would only set him back.
"I panicked when I heard — to me, it was them destroying the medical team that had gotten me back to being semi-normal," Bird, 47, said from his home near the White Bear Lake Resort.
"It's so hard to get the mental health people on line with a mental health issue if you have to keep starting over and over and over and over.
"It's reliving everything to get them up to speed and it just sets a person back so far."
Bird and his wife Carla Murray say they made the roughly six-hour trip to Saskatoon every month because they found a psychiatrist who helped him deal with his PTSD, rage, agitation and anxiety, and came up with a cocktail of drugs that finally worked.
Murray said they filed receipts with Veterans Affairs to cover the $500 in gas, food and accommodations per trip.
The couple, who are living on Bird's pensions, say they can't afford to cover the costs of regular trips and have appealed the decision with the department.
Murray said a psychiatrist in Regina told him there was a nine-month waiting list and they didn't have the expertise to deal with military-related PTSD.
A spokesman for Veterans Affairs couldn't discuss the specific case, but said the department's travel policy hasn't changed.
The federal department did not provide someone for an interview, but Simon Forsyth said in an emailed statement that it is "generally expected that veterans will access services from their nearest possible health-care provider."
But he said some veterans can be compensated for travel to a health-care provider if it maintains "an established relationship" and if the "veteran is making significant progress with a particular mental health professional."
A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney issued a subsequent statement on Sunday saying that departmental officials have been ordered to follow up with the veterans to ensure they're getting the benefits and services they need.
Craig Pottie, a veteran in Truro, N.S., said he also received notice in July that the hour-long drive to Halifax to see his psychologist would no longer be covered by Veterans Affairs even though the department had been paying the costs for more than five years.
Pottie, who says he was diagnosed with a panic disorder linked to his service, said he was told last February that the coverage would expire and that he would have to find care in Truro.
As a result, the 45-year-old says he hasn't seen his psychologist since July.
"She was a like a lifeline," he said from his home. "Without her, my marriage fell apart and my anxiety is returning with a vengeance, to the point that I cannot go outside."
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman has received 129 complaints concerning health-related travel since 2008, said spokeswoman Lisa Monette. They include concerns over turnaround time for payments, denied claims, frustration over the complexity of forms and inconsistencies calculating distances.
Peter Stoffer, the federal NDP veterans affairs critic, said he has contacted the department about the travel coverage but hasn't been able to reverse the decision and feels it is part of a larger government-wide initiative to cut costs.
"These folks are reaching out for help and we should be there to help them and reimbursing their costs for gas ... I don't see where that's going to break the bank."
Bird said he hasn't seen his psychologist since June or his psychiatrist since last March.