Veterans Affairs doesn’t know how many family members receive government-backed benefits

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Veterans Affairs cuts benefits to family members in prison
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said Tuesday "treatment benefits are not to be provided to a veteran's family member who is incarcerated in a federal facility." – Sep 25, 2018

The government has no idea how many family members of veterans receive benefits and other services paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Global News has learned.

In a series of emails sent over the past week, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) told Global News it cannot provide details on how many family members it serves and the type of treatments they receive. This includes the number of adult children of veterans receiving benefits for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as convicted murderer Christopher Garnier.

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“The department receives no information about the circumstances or identity of the family member [receiving benefits],” said Veterans Affairs spokesperson France Bureau.
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“Because the department does not receive information on the family members’ circumstances … and [because] the services are accessed under the veteran’s wellness plan, we cannot break out how many family members are in receipt of VAC benefits,” she said.

VAC facing public outrage

The issue of whose treatment VAC pays for was thrust into the spotlight in the summer when it was revealed Garnier, convicted of second-degree murder for killing off-duty police officer Catherine Campbell, is receiving VAC-funded treatment while in prison for PTSD that he claims to have developed as a result of the murder.

“It makes me angry, it makes me frustrated,” said Mark Campbell, an army major who lost both his legs in a Taliban explosive attack while serving in Afghanistan.

“My own children, who are now adult children, I had to pay for their psychological counselling out of my own pocket to deal with my injuries suffered during the war.”

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While acknowledging Garnier’s case is an extreme example, Campbell says he’s concerned the lack of information about who’s receiving benefits could lead to more problems in the future.

“If they don’t have the basic data about where services are being delivered, or who they’re being delivered to, how can they determine if those services are being delivered effectively?” he said. “This is a significant problem.”

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Campbell compares the lack of data on who receives paid benefits to VAC’s past failures on tracking veteran suicides. He says if the government is truly committed to improving services for veterans and their families, there has to be a way to measure failure and success.

And that requires statistics, he says.

“VAC is going to have to take a look at tightening up its methods,” Campbell said. “We can’t get to the bottom of these issues without having the data.”

‘Best interest’ of vets key to providing services

The government says benefits and other services for veterans’ family members are only offered when those services help the veteran achieve their rehabilitation goals. If treatment of a family member does not help a veteran with their own recovery, the services will not be provided.

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“The focus of providing mental health supports to a family member is always based on the best interest of the well-being of the veteran,” said Emily Gauthier, a VAC spokesperson.

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“Achieving a positive outcome can be compromised if the veteran is treated in isolation, without addressing the effects that the mental health condition has on the family.”

This means services such as counseling are sometimes offered in a group setting, which is one of the reasons why VAC does not track the benefits and treatments family members receive.

And while the government can confirm that roughly $2.9 million was spent last year providing services to family members of 1,400 veterans, it still has no idea what services were provided and how many people received them.

Meanwhile, veterans affairs minister Seamus O’Regan refused a request for an interview.

“[Global News] got the response from the department on this matter and that is going to be the response,” said O’Regan’s spokesperson Alex Wellstead in an email.
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“The questions were surrounding how much money was being spent and on data management; those questions are best suited for the deputy minister and his side of things, as it is the day to day operations,” he said.

Critics worried by lack of information

NDP veteran affairs critic Gord Johns says he’s worried the government won’t be able to improve services for veterans and their families if it doesn’t know who is receiving them.

He also says it would likely be impossible for the government to conduct any meaningful review of its policies given the lack of information VAC currently possesses.

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“It’s deeply disturbing,” Johns said. “How are they delivering services to veterans when they don’t even have the information about their programs and who they’re targeting?”

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“This is a government that keeps making claims they’re looking after veterans and their families,” he said. “[But] if they’re not tracking how they’re serving families, and where those resources are going, then how are they supposed to improve on areas where they’re falling short?”

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Phil McColeman, the Conservatives’ veterans critic, is also concerned. He says the government’s failure to provide answers to these “basic” questions is proof they’re making policy decisions “on the fly.”

“This is what we used to call ‘managing by the seat of your pants.’ In other words, you’re just randomly going about daily business not really knowing what the trends are and what it is that you need to measure against,” he said.

Campbell, meanwhile, hopes the government will see this as an opportunity to do better.

“In order to find the scope of the problem,” he said. “You have to know whether you have a problem in the first instance.”​

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