Veterans' access to benefits a persistent problem, ombudsman says

Veterans' access to benefits a persistent problem, ombudsman says

OTTAWA — Canada's veterans ombudsman says that while the federal government has implemented a number of his recommendations over the years, veterans are facing difficulty accessing some benefits and services they've long been entitled to.

Guy Parent released his 2018 report card Tuesday detailing the government's response to recommendations made by the ombudsman's office over the past 10 years.

Parent says that progress has been made on the veterans file since his update last year, adding that the government has addressed 72 per cent of his recommendations, or 46 out of 64.

"The 72 per cent of recommendations implemented over the last 10 years show that it's consistent. We're not moving fast, but we're moving forward," Parent said in an interview.

Parent said the most important recommendations of the remaining 18 left untouched include ensuring that veterans are being reimbursed for treatment expenses under the Veterans Well-being Act, and that reimbursement is retroactive to the date of the original application.

This means that some veterans are going without treatment because they're not likely to pay for their medical expenses out of pocket when faced with lengthy delays getting reimbursed.

"Under the old pension act...these health care expenses were paid for retroactively to the time that the people actually applied for benefits. Under the new system and the Veterans Well-being Act — the one that's in place right now — benefits are only paid starting at the date of decision," said Parent.

One of the biggest challenges in the department, he said, is that there's a significant backlog of applications, which leaves veterans waiting to be reimbursed.

"Some of them are not accessing treatment and could cause further deterioration to their health and wellness," he said.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said in a statement that the department does authorize and reimburse rehabilitation benefits, including mental health treatment, before the claim is adjudicated.

"Is there more to do? Yes, and that's why we remain focused on the outstanding items in the mandate letter," he said, refering to the set of minister's instructions given to him by the prime minister when he was named to cabinet.

Another recommendation encourages the Liberal government to amend the Veterans Well-being Act to allow a single Canadian Armed Forces member with no dependent children to designate a family member to apply for and receive the death benefit.

Parent said many young soldiers died serving in Afghanistan, but those soldiers' parents or siblings were their caretakers, and therefore they should be entitled to the death benefit. Currently, the benefit is only available for spouses.

Parent says he will keep a close watch on the government's actions and the remaining recommendations.

"Throughout my 10 years I've seen certainly an effort to make things better and I've seen that with successive governments and successive ministers," he said.

But an important change that's needed in Veterans Affairs Canada, added Parent, isn't in his report that deals strictly with recommendations.

"Even more than a challenge, but a big problem, is communications," said Parent, adding, "I think a lot of veterans and their families would be probably more comfortable if there was more information, more transparency from the department."

Parent said VAC needs to better explain to veterans and their families how programs are being regulated as well as the criteria necessary to access services.

The ombudsman's office receives between 5,000 to 6,000 calls a year from veterans or family members seeking assistance, complaining that they're having difficulty accessing benefits or that they're not being treated fairly, said Parent. His office acts on about 1700 cases a year.

"Every year we get upward of 1700 cases, personal complaints...we assist people and negotiate with Veterans Affairs Canada to get the solution to their problem and from that, we draw these recommendations.

"It's a very complex department."

O'Regan said his department is also renewing the way it communicates with veterans to ensure programs and services that are designed to support their well-being. The 2017 federal budget invested $22.4 million over three years, starting in 2017-18, in a communications and outreach strategy to help inform veterans and families of supports and services available to them, he added.

Phil McColeman, Conservative critic for veterans affairs, said the report card indicates that the Trudeau government has failed to respond to the ombudsman's recommendations.

"The Trudeau government has repeatedly demonstrated that they neither adequately grasp the issues affecting veterans, nor intend to honour the promises they made to veterans during the 2015 election campaign," said McColeman.

Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press