OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said Wednesday the government is making progress on clearing the backlog of claims for disability benefits from injured ex-soldiers thanks to the additions of hundreds of staff.
The minister’s comments came as new figures from Veterans Affairs Canada showed the department had around 43,000 outstanding claims in its possession at the end of March — around 6,000 fewer than the previous year.
“The new trainees have been in place for a number of months now but are just really getting rolling, and the backlog has dropped down somewhat,” MacAulay said during a virtual news conference.
“What we're going to do, as I indicated quite clearly, is address the backlog. The backlog is not as big as it was, but we're going to make sure that we address that and make sure that veterans receive the compensation that Canadians want them to receive.”
Yet MacAulay also acknowledged that the sheer presence of the backlog, which has left many veterans waiting sometimes years to find out whether they qualify for financial or medical assistance, is unacceptable.
The 43,000 outstanding claims included 15,000 that had been sitting in the queue for longer than four months, which is the timeline that Veterans Affairs is supposed to respond to process applications for benefits.
The clock also hadn't started on more than 10,000 others because a staff member had not been assigned to them, while nearly 14,000 applications were listed as incomplete and needing more information.
The backlog has emerged as a major source of frustration for Canada’s veterans’ community, with advocates warning delays in processing claims add undue stress on injured ex-soldiers and exacerbate already difficult financial and medical conditions.
The federal Liberal government announced last year that it would hire 300 additional adjudicators at a cost of $87.7 million to address the pile of unprocessed applications, which stood at nearly 50,000 files.
Those hires were in addition to 160 adjudicators hired more than two years ago, when the backlog first started to explode in size. Those employees were also supposed to be temporary, but officials said they would be retained for the foreseeable future.
Despite the apparent early progress of those additional hires, there remain concerns that the department will soon be overwhelmed again as veterans begin to apply in greater numbers following a lull during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Veterans Affairs received around 18,000 claims from injured ex-soldiers between April and September 2020, which was roughly half the number the department had been receiving before the pandemic.
Those numbers have since started to creep up again, and while Veterans Affairs has managed to keep pace, Canada War Amps executive director Brian Forbes believes the department is about to be swamped with pent-up requests for help.
Forbes, who is also chair of the National Council of Veterans Associations, which represents more than 60 organizations, says many veterans were unable to apply for benefits during the pandemic because they couldn’t get the necessary medical papers.
Not only is that no longer as much of an obstacle, Forbes also notes the Canadian Armed Forces allowed military personnel to delay their departures from the military for medical reasons during COVID-19.
“The military is releasing a lot of the men and women who were sort of held in during the pandemic,” he said. “There are going to be more and more cases coming forward. … You can just imagine the backlog that's developing within that cohort.”
Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux also said last year that even with the new hires, there will still be about 40,000 unprocessed applications in two years.
Forbes has been at the forefront in calling for Veterans Affairs to automatically approve claims, particularly for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological trauma.
He and others note that the approval rate for such claims is already nearly 100 per cent, and suggest a post-approval audit process could be implemented to ensure veterans get help quickly and to dissuade potential abuse.
The House of Commons’ veterans affairs committee echoed that request in a report late last year.
“Let's start recognizing common disabilities and give them automatic entitlement,” Forbes said. “The department seems to be moving in that direction, but not very aggressively.”
Veterans Affairs has said it is looking at such an approach, which is used in some circumstances by Australia and the United States, but offered few other details except to suggest changing the current system may require legislation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press