The case of a Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) employee discussing medical assistance in dying (MAiD) with a veteran should serve as “a serious wake-up call” to the gaps former military members face in accessing proper care, advocates told a parliamentary committee Monday.
The House of Commons standing committee on veterans affairs heard directly from veterans and their supporters who said the discussion, which was first reported by Global News in the summer, was a troubling sign that veterans suffering from treatable mental health issues aren’t getting the necessary supports from a department tasked to care for them.
“My fear is that we are offering a vehicle for people to end their lives when there are treatment options available, but those treatment options are more difficult to access than medically assisted death,” said Oliver Thorne, executive director of the Veterans Transition Network.
“We know that they can get better.”
Thorne decried the average length of time veterans are forced to wait for a disability benefit — nearly 10 months, according to an auditor general’s report released last spring — and the minimum 90-day assessment period before MAiD can be provided.
“We cannot have a system that offers veterans medically assisted death faster than it offers them access to evidence-informed care that they rightly deserve because of their service to Canada,” he said.
Global News first reported on Aug. 16 that a VAC employee had discussed medically-assisted dying with a veteran, a case that has brought renewed scrutiny of the department and the ongoing struggle for veterans seeking support.
Sources told Global News a VAC service agent brought up medical assistance in dying, or MAiD, unprompted in a conversation with the combat veteran, who was discussing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Global News is not identifying the veteran due to privacy concerns, but has spoken directly with the individual, who says the service agent brought up MAiD repeatedly and even after the veteran asked the service agent to stop.
The veteran said he felt pressured as a result.
The agent who discussed MAiD is still working at the department, but is no longer interacting directly with veterans, officials have confirmed.
On Thursday, the committee heard from veterans affairs minister Lawrence MacAulay and his deputy, Paul Ledwell, that the investigation into the incident is still ongoing two months after it was first launched.
Despite that, Ledwell — who is directly overseeing the investigation — assured members the probe had determined the service agent’s behaviour was an isolated incident, even though a majority of service calls are not recorded. The investigation had determined no recording was made of the call at the centre of the controversy, he said.
Ledwell said a review of employee records, which include notes taken during calls, had been fully reviewed to determine no other MAiD discussions have taken place.
Witnesses on Monday openly questioned whether the department truly didn’t have a recording of the MAiD call.
The committee ended Monday’s hearing by voting to call MacAulay back for another appearance to further discuss the department’s policy for recording calls, and whether a recording of the MAiD call can be found.
Throughout Thursday’s session, MacAulay repeatedly deferred questions to Ledwell and appeared to grow frustrated as he explained he could not provide details about the department or the investigation, which he said he is not directly involved in.
Veterans’ advocates have repeatedly voiced outrage about the discussion taking place, pointing to it as an example of the ongoing struggles veterans face in receiving proper care — particularly for mental health concerns.
As Remembrance Day approaches, those advocates say they are concerned about the ongoing epidemic of veterans dying by suicide, making the discussion of MAiD with someone who wasn’t seeking it all the more painful. Those concerns were further voiced during Monday’s hearing.
The auditor general’s report released in May found wait times had stayed consistent with 2014 levels despite initiatives by Veterans Affairs to speed up processing. It also found gaps in approval processes and staffing, including the lack of a long-term staffing plan.
— With files from Mercedes Stephenson