Veterans Affairs closes assisted-dying investigation, says four cases were 'isolated'
OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs Canada has closed its investigation into reports that former service members were offered medical assistance in dying, saying it uncovered only four "isolated" incidents involving a single employee.
The conclusion is contained in a report submitted to the House of Commons veterans affairs committee on Friday, following an investigation that involved reviewing thousands of files and interviews with hundreds of former service members and their families.
"(Veterans Affairs) has concluded these were four incidents completely isolated to a single employee," the department said in its report. "Further, it has concluded that this is not a widespread, systemic issue."
The issue first came to light in the summer when Global News reported that a former Armed Forces member who contacted Veterans Affairs for help was offered information about medical assistance in dying.
That report sparked immediate condemnation and concern within Canada's veterans' community, and prompted an internal investigation that later confirmed three more cases involving the same case manager.
Veterans Affairs says the employee left the department in December, though the government has refused to say whether she was fired or resigned. The four cases have been referred to the RCMP, but it remains unclear what police are doing with the file.
Following the initial report, several veterans came forward to say they had also been offered medical assistance in dying.
Among them was retired corporal and Canadian Paralympian Christine Gauthier, who said she was offered an assisted death while fighting for a wheelchair ramp in her home.
Veterans Affairs has not identified the four veterans affected, but the head of the department on Friday said officials invited several former service members to provide more information about their complaints so they could be investigated.
"We requested that that the information be brought forward either to us or to the ombud," deputy minister Paul Ledwell said during a technical briefing. "It did not arrive."
Ledwell characterized the number of such allegations at "less than 20 and more than four."
Veterans Affairs first reported late last year that it believed there were only four incidents involving a single employee, an assertion questioned by members of the veterans' affairs committee investigating the issue.
Members were particularly concerned about what they saw as gaps in the department's ability to confirm that number, given that phone calls between case managers and veterans are not recorded.
Officials have defended the policy of not recording phone calls because such interactions often involve discussions about private medical information. Ledwell on Friday said case files nonetheless contain detailed information.
"So we have a record of all engagement and interaction between Veterans Affairs Canada employees and the veterans that they are serving, either through case management or through graduated support," he said. "The files are comprehensive."
Revelations that medical assistance in dying was raised with even a handful of veterans added to worries about Ottawa's plans to expand access to include people with a mental disorder as their sole underlying condition — a change that has been delayed until March 2024.
Veterans' organizations have called on Ottawa to increase access to mental-health services for former service members, which includes addressing the long wait times that many face when applying for assistance.
Many veterans with mental and physical injuries wait months, or even years, for federal support.
Those wait times have persisted for years despite frustration, anger and warnings from the veterans' community as well as the veterans' ombudsman, Canada's auditor general and others about the negative impact on former service members.
NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney referenced those wait times in a written statement about the department's report on Friday.
"It’s so important that we keep hearing from veterans and their family members about the services they’re offered, and their lack of ability to access mental health services because of Liberal backlogs and delays," she said.
"New Democrats believe MAID shouldn’t be an alternative to being able to access mental health services. The government must ensure that Canadians are able to access the mental health and disability supports they need to live with dignity.”
Veterans Affairs has issued new guidance and training forbidding staff from raising assisted dying as an option, Ledwell said, the department will launch a more in-depth review later this year to uncover other potential lessons.
In the meantime, employees can talk about the benefits and support available if a veteran has chosen medical assistance in dying, but are otherwise told to refer former service members to their primary health-care providers.
"Fundamentally, MAID is between the individual veteran and their medical professional," Ledwell said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press