OTTAWA — The number of veterans waiting to find out whether they qualify for disability benefits has skyrocketed over the last eight months, new figures show, leaving thousands of former military members in limbo.
Veterans Affairs Canada says there were about 29,000 applications for disability benefits in the queue waiting to be processed at the end of November — a nearly 50 per cent increase since the end of March.
Nearly one-third of those applications have been in the line for more than 16 weeks, which is also an increase since the spring and a sign that wait times are continuing to grow.
Veterans' advocates have long criticized how long some retired service members have been forced to wait to find out whether they qualify for support and services after sustaining an injury in uniform.
Federal auditor general Michael Ferguson also previously flagged concerns about delays in processing applications from those who have suffered psychological trauma.
But revelations of the actual size of the backlog have prompted fresh surprise and shock, as well as concerns about the impact on the thousands of veterans having to deal with months of uncertainty over their claims.
"It's so important for people in transitioning to civilian life and can impact a whole bunch of factors, including the ability to pay your bills," said Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada.
"In some cases, it can mean the difference between being a homeless veteran and not."
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan admitted the government needs to do better to ensure disabled veterans get the benefits they need and deserve and said action is being taken.
That includes hiring hundreds more staff, streamlining the way Veterans Affairs officials review files to speed up processing times and giving veterans more benefit of the doubt when it comes to approving benefits.
"More veterans are coming forward to get the help they need," O'Regan said in a statement. "And we need to meet them where and when they need that support."
But such promises have been made before and are starting to ring hollow as the problem continues to get worse, said Peter Stoffer, a former NDP MP and longtime veterans' advocate.
"If you go back to (former minister) Fred Mifflin in 1997, he said the exact same thing," Stoffer said.
"All 13 ministers since '97 have said the exact same thing: 'We have to do a better job, we're speeding up the process.' And it's getting worse, to be honest with you."
Exactly why the backlog is growing remains unclear; while Veterans Affairs says it received 20 per cent more applications between April 2015 and March 2016, that doesn't explain why the figures increased this year.
And while the department was hit hard by budget cuts and layoffs under the previous Conservative government, the Liberals say they have hired 460 new staff since taking office.
News of the backlog comes only days after a landmark new study found the rate of suicide among veterans was "significantly" higher than that of the general population.
A group of injured veterans also suffered a major setback last week when the B.C. Court of Appeal rejected their legal effort to win back lifelong disability pensions.
The pensions were replaced in 2006 by a lump-sum payment, career training and targeted income support, which those involved in the lawsuit complained gave them less financial compensation.
O'Regan has promised to unveil a new pension plan by the end of the year, though many veterans fear it will fall far short of the previous pensions.
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.