Blair Davis, a retired member of the Canadian Armed Forces, climbed onto the roof of his Nova Scotia home in 2010 and said he wanted to die so he could make life better for everyone.
Blair served in the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 1993 and was among the first Canadian troops sent to the region in an attempt to stop years of violence, including against the country’s ethnic minorities.
“I went into a house, and the wall had a picture of a unicorn and flowers,” Blair said. “It was a little girl’s room and it was all blown up all around. But you could sense that a little girl lived there.
“It was hard to see that hate and that destruction,” he said. “I’m going back 27 years right now and I still have those raw emotions and feelings.”
But when Blair applied for disability benefits due to post-traumatic stress disorder, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) rejected his application, his wife Kim said. This was because VAC claimed there was nothing in his service record linking his PTSD to his time in Bosnia.
Blair appealed and eventually won, but it was five years from when he was first reported mental health concerns to the time VAC started paying for his care.
And Blair isn’t the only veteran forced to wait.
VAC meets or exceeds its own 16-week standard for processing applications for disability and health-care benefits in just one-third of cases, according to government statistics released last year. And because of how VAC’s rules work, veterans cannot receive the care they need while these decisions are pending,
Under both Conservative and Liberal leadership, the government has also allowed more than $2 billion earmarked for veterans affairs to go unspent since 2005.
All of this, Kim and Blair said, leaves veterans and their families feeling frustrated.
“We’ve had to fight for everything my husband receives,” Kim said.
‘Cut off’ from mental health treatments
VAC cut off Kim’s mental health services in February after four years when the department decided the policy that provides the benefits should be applied differently.
Blair says that when he called to find out why the treatments were cut off, a department official told him that Kim had used up her eligibility and that she should try accessing treatment through his insurance plan or VAC’s assistance line.
However, according to VAC’s rules, spouses such as Kim are eligible for up to 25 counselling sessions a year, so long as they are approved by a veteran’s psychiatrist and are meant to help with their recovery.
But the rules also say that, in most cases, mental health treatments for family members should be provided on a “short term” basis only.
Kim says she uses the appointments to help Blair with his PTSD, which includes blackouts and fits of anger, and to manage the stress it creates for their family.
She also says VAC has a responsibility to cover the treatments she receives so long as Blair continues to suffer from PTSD. This, she says, is especially true in their case because she is Blair’s primary caregiver and because he’s been deemed a danger to himself when left alone.
“(His PTSD) is still there and it will probably be there until the day he dies, which is one of the things I’m trying to prevent every day,” Kim said.
The government, meanwhile, says the policy has not changed since 2010, but added that a recent review of the program found it was not being applied consistently.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said Tuesday that the department is conducting further review of the policy with the goal of “maximizing compassion for veterans and their families.” This includes a review of individual cases that were affected when the department decided the policy was not being applied evenly.
MacAulay also said the government has increased funding for veterans by more than $1.5 billion a year since taking office.
Delays, backlogs and broken promises
Blair also has a pending application for health care benefits for a back injury he sustained while in the military. He says the application was submitted to VAC in 2018 and is still awaiting approval.
Data released by the government in February shows that VAC has more than 26,000 applications for disability benefits awaiting approval.
And while the government says it’s doing everything it can to ensure veterans get the care they need, hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for veterans goes unspent each year.
While campaigning to become prime minister in 2015, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau criticized Conservatives for leaving $1.1 billion meant for veterans and their families unspent.
Trudeau said this practice — which happens when VAC doesn’t spend all the money it’s allocated in a given year — was wrong, and he promised that a government led by him would “make it right.”
But since taking office, Trudeau and the Liberals have allowed nearly $500 million budgeted for VAC to go unspent.
Under Trudeau’s leadership, successive ministers of veterans affairs have defended the practice, saying VAC bases its budgets on estimates and that anyone who is eligible for benefits will receive them, regardless of how much money is allocated.
The House of Commons also unanimously passed a motion in November 2018 saying all lapsed funding for veterans would “automatically carry forward” to the next year.
But as Global News reported in January, another $105 million was allowed to go unspent in the most recent fiscal year, even though VAC is failing to meet its own service standards for providing care.
Mike Blais, a retired soldier and president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, says it’s not enough to promise veterans they’ll receive the care they’re entitled to: the government must also ensure VAC has the resources it needs — including staff — to deliver on these promises and to process applications in a timely manner.
He also says the government should make legislative changes to ensure that all unspent money at VAC is not sent back to the treasury board at the end of each year and is instead targeted toward reducing wait times and meeting service standards, as the 2018 motion said it should be.
“One thing is for certain. It’s not right. It’s not fair to veterans. And it is a direct contradiction to what the prime minister of Canada promised veterans, not only this mandate but the last mandate.”
The government, meanwhile, says it does not need to change any legislation and that it is already doing what the motion said it should because any unspent funding sent back to the treasury board can be reallocated in the following year’s budget.
This is the same response Conservative veterans affairs ministers gave when criticized by the Liberals for unspent funding prior to the 2015 election.
“No legislation is required for Veterans Affairs to access the funds it needs the following year,” said John Embury, a spokesperson for MacAulay.
“Each year, VAC estimates the amount of funding needed to meet the anticipated demand for each program. The department must ensure that it can provide for all the veterans and families who may be approved (for) benefits.”
Conservative veterans affairs critic Phil McColeman said his party supported the November 2018 motion because it believes the government should provide the best possible services and benefits to veterans and their families. He did not, however, confirm if the Conservatives would support legislative changes that allow unspent funding to remain at VAC at the end of each year.
Case managers ‘overburdened’ and stressed
One of the government’s key service standards — which it is failing to meet — measures the number of veterans assigned to each case manager at VAC.
Often trained social workers, case managers help veterans with more complex needs by creating individualized rehabilitation plans, getting them into vocational training programs and co-ordinating with medical and mental health professionals.
When the Liberals were elected, they promised to reduce the ratio of veterans to case managers from roughly 40 to 1 — which is what it was under the Harper government — to 25 to 1.
But according to a March 2019 audit of VAC’s case management system, the ratio remains at roughly 36 to 1.
Heavy workloads are also beginning to affect the mental health of case managers themselves.
The 2019 audit reported three-quarters of case managers felt “overburdened” by the number of clients they are assigned and said they are unable to complete their work in the time allocated.
According to the audit, 71 per cent of case managers said heavy workloads were causing them stress, while 45 per cent said their overall stress levels at work were “very high.” Both of these figures were double the rate for other VAC employees asked the same questions and significantly higher than other sections of the public service.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of case managers said there isn’t enough staff at VAC to do the work that’s needed and that constantly shifting priorities from management and the government make their jobs more difficult.
In total, 76 per cent of case managers reported being over capacity, 21 per cent said they are at optimal capacity, and just three per cent said they are working at or below capacity.
VAC spokesperson Marc Lescoutre said the department is committed to improving the work environment for its employees and that it recognizes it must do more than just hiring new case managers. He also said VAC is reviewing its case management system, improving automation of administrative work, and expanding online services to make it easier for veterans to communicate with the department.
‘Surge’ in new cases blocks progress
The government has consistently attributed its lack of progress in meeting its own service standards to a spike in new applications for VAC benefits.
The 2019 VAC audit said a “surge” in veterans receiving cases management services — going from 7,448 in March 2015 to 13,437 in March 2018 — is the reason why it has been unable to meet its own service standards for case managers. This is despite VAC nearly doubling the number of active case managers during the same period.
The main reason for the sudden increase in new applications, the audit said, is that in 2016, the government increased the financial payout veterans receive while seeking rehabilitation, from 75 per cent of their pre-release pay to 90 per cent.
This bump in funding, along with an increase in the number of people being released from the military, led to a sharp increase in “case managed” files at VAC.
New programs, such as funding for university, enhanced disability benefits and pension for life, have also led to a spike in applications for VAC assistance, the government said.
According to the government, the number of applications processed by VAC has risen from 29,000 in 2015 to more than 54,000 in 2019. This, the government said, has led to longer wait times and delays.