WATCH: The Auditor General criticized Veterans Affairs for taking too long to offer help to Canada’s military personnel, and those delays are putting our veterans at risk. Shirlee Engel explains.
OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted some veterans face an “unnecessarily long and difficult” wait for mental health care and vowed to fix that Tuesday, after an auditor general’s report found many are left languishing in a complex system as they seek services.
In the face of accusations from opposition parties that the Conservatives have “failed our nation’s veterans,” Harper said Veterans Affairs Canada will work to improve long-term disability benefits for former members of the military.
A Global News investigation last spring shed light on the often torturous route facing veterans seeking help for mental illnesses that are all too often dismissed or overlooked.
WATCH: One Nova Scotia veteran says delays in accessing mental health care comes with real costs to vets and their families. Marieke Walsh reports.
“The auditor general did note that the process is unnecessarily long and difficult. For that reason the department has accepted those recommendations,” Harper told the House of Commons.
But the prime minister defended his government’s short-term rehabilitation program, which Auditor General Michael Ferguson said was doing well.
“What the auditor general said is that Veterans Affairs Canada has put in place major health measures for veterans and that the department provides timely access to these veterans. Also 94 per cent of veterans are eligible for disability benefit programs, and the department has accepted his recommendations,” Harper said.
But the federal government has still not committed to eliminating inequities that mean reservists hurt in the line of duty get nowhere near the benefits due their regular-force comrades. Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said last month he’s considering it.
WATCH: Opposition MPs slam the Conservatives over what they say is a failure by Canada’s government to properly take care of its veterans
NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie hammered the government in question period Tuesday.
“The Conservatives failed to act and they have failed our nation’s veterans,” she said. “The Conservatives even failed to assess whether their mental health strategy was helping veterans at all.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau asked Harper about the department’s $1.1 billion dollars in unused funding over seven years.
“The auditor general’s report said that mental health support for our veterans is very slow, complex, poorly communicated, not tracked, and not comprehensive enough. So why would the prime minister deliberately under-spend over a billion dollars in veterans funding?” he asked.
Harper said the report doesn’t suggest there’s under-spending, but that delivery of the long-term benefits is “far too slow and complicated.”
“In terms of lapsed funding, the government does not know at the beginning of the year how much money will be owed to veterans. It obviously responds to applications by providing more than enough funding. We ensure that veterans are paid in full every year,” Harper said.
READ MORE: Is the New Veterans Charter working?
Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said the report substantiated many claims he’s been hearing from veterans.
“These men and women are suffering,” he said.
“They’ve come forward, whether it be mental or physical injuries, seeking care. And when our government, those that sent them to war, treats them as an adversary, makes the program complex and very difficult to complete – there are problems, especially for those who are suffering from mental wounds.”
Ferguson’s fall report found many of Canada’s battle-scarred veterans wait up to eight months to find out if they are eligible for long-term mental-health disability benefits. And the department responsible for their care has no idea if its treatment programs are effective.
For a handful of those ex-soldiers, the cumbersome application process is only the beginning of a battle for care that can rage for years.
The report takes Veterans Affairs -and to a lesser extent, National Defence – to task for saddling psychologically battered veterans with a dizzying array of paperwork and for making them wait an unnecessarily long time for help.
“The department doesn’t really seem to have spent time looking at the process from the point of view of the veteran,” Ferguson said.
“And we think the department needs to put themselves in the shoes of the veterans who are trying to access these services, in order so they can understand the experience of trying to navigate through that whole process just to get an answer.”
The Harper government has tried in the last few days to get ahead of the scathing report by announcing an additional $200 million in funding over the next five years, much of which is to expand the department’s system of operational stress injury clinics, where soldiers can get a formal diagnosis.
The auditor’s report did find Veterans Affairs is doing a good job facilitating access to short-term rehabilitation services.
“Minister Fantino recommended that the auditor general review the mental health supports in order to help improve our programs and services; we thank the auditor general for making constructive recommendations and we appreciate his finding that access to mental health support is timely,” Ashlee Smith said in an email.
WATCH: Why the Auditor General says the federal government is letting down Canada’s veterans
With files from The Canadian Press
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