09/16/2014 03:46 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:53 EDT

DND struggles to fill mental health positions nine months after suicide crisis

OTTAWA - Almost nine months after promising to make the hiring of mental health staff a priority for the Canadian Forces, 40 positions — nearly 10 per cent of the military's mental health workforce — remain vacant across the country, according to new figures released by National Defence.

The information comes as a series of emails show the military was scrambling prior to the last federal budget to avoid further cuts in its medical branch, all at a time when several soldiers took their own lives and some 35 others tried to do the same.

The pledge to meet a long-established benchmark of 454 psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and addiction counsellors — both civilian and military — was made at the height of a series of suicides last winter.

Thirty-two of the vacant positions are civil service jobs, which have proven the toughest to fill.

No one in the administration has been idle, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson insisted Tuesday during question period in the House of Commons.

"This has become a priority for this government," Nicholson said in response to a question about a published report showing there have been more military suicides since 2002 than there were combat casualties in Afghanistan.

"I've indicated we've increased our health care spending. We've increased the number of mental health care workers. And I can tell this House that, unlike under the previous administration, this will be a priority for this government."

But up until the recent series of suicides, there had seemed to be little sense of urgency.

A budgetary and bureaucratic turf war brought on by the Harper government's hiring freeze prevented the Canadian Forces Health Services from filling jobs, even though $11.4-million was injected into the system in 2012 to make it happen.

In testimony last spring before a Commons committee, one federal official said certain obstacles, such as a paltry relocation allowance, had been rectified and removed.

Since January, 54 mental health staff have been hired and officials said they were "proactively" searching to fill the rest.

But an email exchange between the military's chief of personnel and the department's deputy minister shows that, even in the midst of the suicide crisis, the military was being told to make budgetary room for the new hires.

"During our meeting last week, I mentioned the potential cuts to (Health Services) primary care, associated with our budget issues in (2014/15) and longer," Maj.-Gen. David Millar wrote on Jan. 12, 2014, in a memo obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

"It is important to note that cuts to primary care have a direct impact on (mental health) care as primary care provides the front end and the back end, with (mental health) care providing the specialist requirement.

"Therefore augmenting (mental health) care while decreasing primary care will be contrary to what we are trying to achieve."

National Defence was asked recently whether the last budget imposed any reductions to primary care or staff.

"There were no cuts made to the primary care program budget as it would have had too great of an impact on the health care of (Canadian Armed Forces) members," the department responded in an email.

"The military health care program continues to be adequately funded by DND through a combination of baseline funding and, when required, in-year funding adjustments."

Also despite the government's assurances, wait times for initial assessments at Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centres have been creeping up at four of the seven clinics across the country.

For example, at Valcartier, Que., the wait for routine, non-urgent assessments sat at 102 days in July, up from an average of 43 days in the spring. It's almost as bad in Petawawa, Ont., where the wait is 78 days.

Only in Esquimalt, B.C., Gagetown, N.B., and Halifax have the wait times declined.

Cases are supposed to seen within 28 days. Officials said urgent cases are dealt with quickly, sometimes as "soon as the same day."

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