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Despite some progress, Veterans Affairs still not processing disability claims fast enough

Government not spending all funds allocated to veterans
WATCH: Despite the federal government's promise to take care of veterans as they transition out of service, new information obtained by Global News shows that Veteran Affairs Canada is not spending all the money allocated to support Canada's former troops.

By its own admission, the federal government has failed to process disability claims made by retired soldiers in a timely manner.

According to information recently published by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), increased demand for disability benefits “continues to outpace” the government’s capacity to process applications.

This is despite VAC having hired more than 150 staff over the past two years dedicated to processing claims, plus efforts to streamline the application process.

Read more: Wait times, broken promises leave veterans and their families feeling desperate

The government’s stated goal is to process disability claims within 16 weeks of receiving an application in 80 per cent of cases. But newly released statistics show VAC meets or exceeds this target in just 37 per cent of cases.

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“It’s endemic… No matter how you look at it, it’s not good,” said Mike Blais, a retired soldier and president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

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To address this problem, the government announced on Monday a new plan for speeding up the application process and clearing the current backlog of roughly 21,000 unprocessed disability applications.

The plan includes hiring an additional 300 temporary staff, the first of whom will begin deciding cases in January 2021, and exploring new ways of making decisions, such as potentially pre-approving treatment of some common conditions known to be associated with certain disabilities.

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The government also hopes to learn from its international partners, including members of the strategic Five Eyes intelligence network, on how to process claims quickly and more efficiently.

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“I think it’s fair to say this is a direct response to those criticisms (from veterans),” a senior VAC official said during a technical briefing Monday.

Details of the new plan

One of the main goals of the new strategy is to “significantly reduce” the current backlog of roughly 21,000 overdue disability claims.

The department hopes to have the backlog down to about 5,000 claims within the next two years, although it acknowledges there will likely always be more complicated cases that take longer to decide and fall outside the 16-week target.

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VAC also said it is launching new internal strategies for handling applications more efficiently. This includes setting up specialized teams of intake staff and adjudicators who work together to decide cases more quickly.

Rather than passing applications from one person to the next during each stage of the application process — which means the new person needs to familiarize themselves with the case each time a file is handed off — these teams will look at cases together from start to finish.

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A recent pilot project showed this approach resulted in an 11 per cent gain in productivity, meaning decisions were made faster. As of June, VAC has implemented this approach across the entire department.

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VAC also said hiring 300 temporary staff over the next two years will allow the government to process 80,000 more applications than if these people were not hired.

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However, Blais said he’s disappointed these jobs aren’t permanent positions, citing the government’s own projections that interest in many newly created disability benefit programs will likely continue to grow during the next several years.

“These commitments they’re making should be full time, not just temporary until we catch up on the backlog and then go back to the status quo,” he said.

Failing to meet service standards

VAC has 24 self-imposed service standards for providing care to veterans and their families.

Although there has been recent improvement to how often the department meets these goals — it’s now failing at nine of 24 compared to 15 of 24 service standards a year ago — the most recent statistics show VAC is still falling short in many of the most important areas, including processing disability and health-care benefits, plus the time it takes to set up a rehabilitation plan.

VAC also has not met its goal for reducing the workload of “overburdened” case managers — often trained social workers — who’ve reported feeling increased stress at work because of the volume of cases they’re assigned.

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This is despite a recent influx of funding as part of last year’s federal budget earmarked specifically for addressing this problem.

“The need for case management services for our ill and injured veterans and their families continues to outpace expectations,” a recent government report said.

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Since the Liberals took office in 2015, VAC has experienced a surge in new applications for veterans benefits, including disability benefits.

The government attributes this to a number of new programs offered by VAC, plus increases to the amount veterans receive when signed up for a rehabilitation program, going from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of pre-lease pay.

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The government also says it has seen a roughly 60 per cent increase in disability benefit applications since 2015. In 2019, the government received nearly 65,000 claims, about two-thirds of which were first-time applications.

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“Veterans should receive the benefits and services they’re entitled to in a timely manner, and the current backlog is unacceptable,” said Cameron McNeill, spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay.

“The recent investment of nearly $90 million that our government made will allow Veterans Affairs to hire hundreds of new staff and speed up processes to ensure veterans receive faster decisions.

“This has been the minister’s No. 1 priority since he was sworn in, and we will continue to do everything we can to address the backlog.”