04/15/2015 01:24 EDT | Updated 06/15/2015 05:59 EDT

Veterans Affairs Hiring Spree Doesn't Mean Cuts Went Too Far: O'Toole

OTTAWA - Veterans Affairs has been on a hiring spree this week, but the minister in charge says it's not a signal that the Conservative government believes cuts to the bureaucracy went too far.

Erin O'Toole says the department is expecting to recruit 100 case managers, and possibly more, to oversee a declining population of ex-soldiers with increasingly complex and far-reaching needs.

In meetings with advocacy groups earlier this week, O'Toole said an additional 100 staff would be brought on to process disability claims — a response to an audit last fall that found it was taking up to eight months to deal with some cases.

The positions will be a mixture of permanent and temporary in a branch that suffered a disproportionate share of the department's staff reductions.

"This is an acknowledgment that we are seeing a much more dramatic than expected increase in mental-health claims," O'Toole said in a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press.

It is also an acknowledgment of the auditor general's criticism that Veterans Affairs wasn't meeting its service goals, he said.

Carl Gannon of the union representing veterans affairs employees says for O'Toole to claim the frontline cuts were not overzealous is "very dangerous."

"Gaps will still be created regardless, until the nine offices are reopened and vets can be served the way the need to be served," said Gannon, president of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees.

Internal Veteran Affairs briefing notes, prepared for former minister Julian Fantino, map out the depth of department-wide cuts and show that by the end of current budget year, the Conservatives had intended to eliminate a total of 804 jobs.

In February, the department cut 44 positions when it handed work formerly done by civil servants over to the private insurance company, Medavie Blue Cross.

The across-the-board reductions were predicated on the fact that the department's traditional client base — Second World War and Korean War veterans — were dying, but O'Toole says what they've found is that peacekeeping and Afghan war veterans have more complex cases.

And, they also belong to a media-savvy culture that demands good service.

Liberal veterans critic Frank Valeriote said that's just spin and the government is only now realizing the damage that's been caused.

"The Conservatives made deliberate and devastating cuts affecting hundreds of frontline service staff at Veterans Affairs," said Valeriote.

"Now they are in damage-control mode. Even still, the Conservatives are only replacing a tiny fraction of the staff they fired. Stephen Harper must acknowledge the sacred obligation we have to those who serve and present a plan that will offer the best of care and support to our veterans and their families."

Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said he is happy to see the hiring, but wondered how quickly it will take place and whether the staff would be through the door before this fall's election.

"Hopefully, they will be hired quickly and this is not an announcement without substance, (or) put in abeyance due to electoral restrictions," he said.

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