It has been a rough few weeks for Veterans Affairs Canada. The government department tasked with caring for Canada’s retired military personnel has come under fire over a number of revelations indicating sub-par performance in recent years and deficient funding to address the problems. Though the Conservative government has announced new spending commitments, the latest disclosures point to a shirking of government responsibilities toward veterans.
The first piece of major news to break was a report on November 19, 2014 that Veterans Affairs (VA) failed to spend more than $1.1 billion in budgetary funds over a period of seven years. The unused funds were subsequently returned to the Treasury. While the Conservatives defended this as the “normal practice of all governments,” some such as Don Leonardo of Veterans Canada met the news with indignation that the government was balancing its budget on the backs of veterans. In 2006-07, unspent funds hit a high point of 8.2% of the budget.
Just four days after the $1.1 billion in lapsed funds was disclosed, the government announced a significant commitment to VA: $200 million to spend on addressing veterans’ mental health issues. The money would go towards a variety of uses including the digitization of health records and the creation of a major Operational Stress Injury (OSI) clinic in Halifax and satellite offices elsewhere. While media outlets initially believed that the $200 million would be spent within 5-6 years, it came to light soon thereafter that that would not be the case. Of the $159.2 million allocated for the OSI clinics, only $19.1 million would be spent within the first six years; the remaining $140.1 million will be spent “over the life of the program,” with most estimating that it will take 50 years for all of the money to be spent.
The timing of the $200 million commitment was intended to pre-empt an auditor general’s report on November 25, 2014 that many expected to be critical of VA’s handling of affairs. When released, the report represented an indictment of VA’s Disability Benefits Program and mental health strategy. The report found that, in addition to a “complex” application process for acquiring mental health benefits, it takes 20% of veterans over eight months from the start of the process before they are even approved for care. Half of OSI clinics were found to have wait times of almost two months for referrals. Moreover, 2,841 veterans were denied benefits by the program (and this excludes the 800+ who were initially refused before winning an appeal process). This means that over 2,800 veterans who believed they needed mental health benefits are still going without care. While a spokesperson for the former Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino pointed out that the $200 million pledge would alleviate the stress currently on OSI clinics, the Minister nonetheless came under fire from opposition parties who called for his resignation.
“The biggest battle I’ve ever faced in my entire life is here at home against my very own government.”- Major M. Campbell
But these high-profile stories are not the only ones putting VA in hot water recently. After Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated during question period on December 3 2014 that the government had “taken resources out of backroom administration from bureaucracy” and “put it into services,” some troubling—and contradictory—information was revealed just four days later. Since 2009, almost 900 jobs have been cut in Veterans Affairs. The largest branches cut were health and rehabilitation (41%) and disability awards (33%), while jobs in internal services (what Harper had called “backroom administration”) were cut by only 10.1 percent. According to a 2013-14 departmental report, the disability and death compensation branch “underspent its budget allotment by $121 million.” Contrary to what the government had publicly claimed, the deepest cuts were not aimed at a bloated bureaucracy, but rather at the vital services meant to assist wounded veterans. The list goes on. While few OSI clinics and inability to hire uniformed psychologists, the government has struggled to fill mental health positions at clinics in remote locations. However, the VA has been advertising to hire for two years, unfortunately they had very few applicants.
A lawyer for the Attorney General of Canada is now asking the BC Supreme Court to throw out a class-action lawsuit by injured war veterans who claim the new Veterans Charter is unconstitutional and decreases the benefits paid to injured vets. All of these revelations combine to paint a disturbing picture. Out of fiscal considerations, jobs have been cut and budgets underspent, and now the results of inadequate funding and insufficient staffing are coming down hard on Canada’s veterans. Even with the new pledge of $200 million in funding for Veterans Affairs, the relatively small annual commitments (and secrecy surrounding the yearly allocations) have undermined veterans’ trust in the government.
The severity of mental health and suicide issues among Canadian soldiers and veterans is growing more and more apparent with time. It is critical that the new Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada, Erin O’Toole, regains veterans’ trust and that the government commit to doing what is necessary to improve the level of care for veterans.
Major Mark Campbell, an injured veteran of Afghanistan and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit mentioned above, has said that “the biggest battle I’ve ever faced in my entire life is here at home against my very own government.” Veterans who have fought for this country shouldn’t have to return home to fight against it.