OTTAWA — Injured Canadian Forces veterans are being forced to wait longer than in years past to find out whether they qualify for financial aid, newly disclosed documents show.
The revelation, contained in internal Veterans Affairs Canada reports, comes not only with Remembrance Day less than a week away, but amid growing frustration from many injured ex-soldiers at the midway point of the Trudeau government's mandate.
It also represents a potential stumbling block as the government moves to implement its new strategy to combat suicide and improve mental health among Canada's military members and veterans.
The reports, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, do show the government has made progress in hiring more case workers for injured veterans, as was promised during the last election.
But the time it takes to process applications for disability benefits and other financial aid has shot up under the Liberals, leaving many veterans in limbo for months as they wait to find out whether they qualify.
The documents suggest Veterans Affairs was surprised by a large increase in the number of disability claims in recent years, which can be made by anyone who suffers a long-term injury in uniform.
While officials were on track to process almost 4,000 more applications in 2016-17 than the 15,000 in 2014-15, the documents show that the number processed within 16 weeks dropped to 43 per cent from 66 per cent.
The target for Veterans Affairs is to process 80 per cent of applications within 16 weeks, and the results mean more than half of veterans were forced to wait more than four months to find out if they qualified for the benefit.
Officials also saw a precipitous drop when it came to applications to a different program that tops up the incomes of permanently injured veterans to 90 per cent of what they made while in the military.
Only 67 per cent of applications for what is known as the earnings loss benefit were processed within four weeks, compared to 86 per cent in 2014-15.
Officials blamed the problem on the large influx of requests received over the past two years, which they say they are working to address by hiring more staff and streamlining the adjudication process.
Veterans Affairs "is regularly examining the entire disability application process from intake to decisions to expedite decisions and respond to veterans' needs more quickly," spokesman Marc Lescoutre said in an email.
"We recognize that the adjudication process needs to be streamlined even further and additional adjudicators hired to make application decisions in a more effective and timely manner."
As for the earnings loss benefit, "we expect to be back within the published service standard by the end of the calendar year" following a review of the program, Lescoutre said.
Still, the department's problems are likely to stir discontent among veterans, who are already upset about the fact the Liberals have yet to reinstate lifelong disability pensions for injured ex-soldiers, as promised.
It also raises questions about the government's new suicide prevention strategy for military personnel and veterans, since financial security is seen as one of the main contributors to a successful post-military life.
In separate committee appearances last week, veterans' ombudsman Guy Parent and military ombudsman Gary Walbourne blasted the onerous process for deciding whether veterans should get benefits.
"Why is it so difficult to get into these programs? What is the reason for all the delay in the adjudication review processes?" Walbourne complained to the House of Commons committee on veterans affairs.
"We cannot continue to see this type of performance on turnaround times and accessibility into these programs and services."
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