Canada’s minister of veterans affairs says he isn’t sure whether there will be more cases of veterans discussing medical assistance in dying (MAID) with a Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) employee, but believes the four cases confirmed so far may be the extent of it.
Lawrence MacAulay is also acknowledging that his previous insistence that the first known case was an isolated incident was “not correct,” as more confirmed cases were later revealed and other veterans since have come forward with their own claims of similar discussions.
“All I can tell you at this time is there are four cases and one individual employee is involved,” MacAulay said during a year-end interview with Global News. “But the investigation is not over.
“I feel that possibly this is all that’s there, but I don’t know.”
MacAulay said despite progress made on reducing wait times for veterans receiving benefits and other investments, his primary responsibility heading into 2023 is to restore the trust that has been lost with former military members who are now concerned about reaching out to VAC for services they are entitled to.
“I regret anything that would do anything to affect one veteran for not looking for help and (coming) forward,” he said. “Because they need (those supports).
“Whatever I can do and whatever (the department) can do in order to restore trust or any problems that people have, we will do anything to make sure that is repaired.”
However, MacAulay said he still has yet to speak to any of the four veterans with whom a VAC service agent discussed medically assisted dying. The situation has been referred to the RCMP.
“I made an attempt, but I have publicly indicated my apology for (the cases) myself,” he said.
He did not say how many veterans he has reached out to, or if he would continue to try to arrange those private conversations.
“I would be more than pleased to talk to any of the veterans and offer whatever apologies I can, a full apology in every way for the likes of this, because this in no way should happen.
“If it would help make them feel better, I would be pleased to do that.”
Global News first reported in August that a VAC employee had discussed medically assisted death with a veteran, a case that has brought renewed scrutiny on the department and the ongoing struggle for veterans seeking support.
Sources told Global News a VAC service agent brought up MAID unprompted in a conversation earlier this year with the combat veteran, who was discussing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
The veteran, whom Global News has not identified but has spoken with directly, said the service agent told him in the call about having helped another veteran access resources for medical assistance in dying, and that the other veteran went through with a medically assisted death.
A VAC spokesperson told Global News this week it has not been able to confirm if any veteran who discussed MAID later ended their own life.
An internal department investigation sparked by Global News’ reporting not only confirmed those two cases, but later revealed the same VAC agent discussed MAID with two other veterans, MacAulay first told lawmakers last month. The employee, who had earlier been reassigned and was no longer interacting with veterans, has been suspended pending the still-ongoing probe.
Before the two additional cases were confirmed, MacAulay publicly called the issue “an isolated incident,” despite veterans raising concerns that was not the case in conversations with Global News.
While the RCMP confirms the matter has been referred to “the appropriate RCMP jurisdiction for investigation,” the national police force has not confirmed if a formal probe has been opened. Canada’s assisted dying law states such discussions can only be held between a patient and their primary health-care provider.
MacAulay would not comment on whether the employee should be fired, saying it was “a human resources issue” that requires proper procedures under the public service union contract.
The department says it has not found information to confirm a claim by retired corporal and former Paralympian Christine Gauthier that she was at least the fifth veteran with whom a service agent discussed assisted dying, saying a review of her file did not corroborate such a discussion occurred.
Veterans’ advocates have told Global News that the revelations highlighted the struggles veterans face in accessing care and with their own mental health, and have broken their remaining trust with the department. They say veterans have been “fearful to reach out” to VAC for services and benefits over concern they will also have MAID discussed with them.
MacAulay pointed to the $140 million over five years included in last year’s federal budget for veterans to access disability benefits for mental health supports, which he said was being used by 1,500 clients to date, as proof the department takes mental health supports seriously.
When asked if more will be done to ease access to mental health supports, he said the priority is to ensure veterans are seeking that help.
“We have to make sure people feel comfortable about coming (to the department for help),” he said. “And I want to do everything I can to make sure we do that. Any other programs that I can improve, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure they are improved.”
He said any veteran who has an issue with the department, including a potential MAID discussion or fears about accessing proper care, should submit a report to the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman.
MacAulay did pledge that wait times for disability benefits will be brought down to the national standard of 16 weeks by next summer.
The department says the current average wait time is now less than 25 weeks, down from the 43 weeks reported by the veterans’ ombudsman in the fall. The backlog of veterans waiting for a decision, meanwhile, has fallen from more than 23,000 files in 2019 to about 8,600.
The minister said he’s hopeful veterans will continue to see improvements while highlighting the work of the entire VAC workforce, who he said are “hurt” over the MAID controversy.
“They are the most dedicated public servants I’ve dealt with. They care,” he said. “And this hurt them dearly.”