Veterans waiting for answers on disability claims are facing “perfect storm” as COVID closures add to backlog

·4 min read

The National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada last month called for dramatic action amidst what it called a “perfect storm” of existing backlogs and COVID-19.

A public statement predicted dire effects for vets unless serious changes are made. The council was repeating the same urgent plea it had made in July.

Situations faced by vets waiting for decisions are often ruinous, leading to homelessness, family crisis and worsening of their condition.

Many people “just give up – they’re completely disgusted by the system,” Daryl Minifie C.D. Sgt (Ret’d) said in a recent interview.

He served in Afghanistan, Bosnia, at Canadian Forces Station Alert close to the North Pole and on five different ships. Most of his 22-year career, he was stationed in Ottawa or Kingston.

COVID-19 makes needed paperwork harder to get as offices were closed and medical resources were limited for non-emergency requests.

The department’s Media Kit processing report shows that first applications for disability claims plunged after the shut-downs due to COVID. There were more than 10,000 first applications in the first quarter of 2020, but only about 5,700 in the second quarter. That means more people are waiting to even enter the system and access a “wait time standard.”

During ordinary times, getting to the stage of having a complete file is hard enough.

Minifie recalls not having a family doctor when he moved to rural Grey County about 10 years ago – not an unusual situation.

Veterans Affairs told him repeatedly he could go to emergency at the local hospital to get forms filled out. When he did, the doctor turned him away.

Minifie then found a doctor in Meaford to see him – not to take him on as a patient, but to see him. After that doctor saw his stack of forms, he scolded him for the time that would be lost to seeing his regular patients.

As of June 2020, there were 17,500 veterans with more than 21,000 claims caught in what’s called “the backlog” by Veteran’s Affairs.

The backlog means a complete application that has been waiting longer than the service standard.

Before the clock starts to tick on the government service standard of 16 weeks for a first application, the file must be complete – and that time, effort and follow-up.

Minifie’s own experiences and those he hears from other veterans motivate the advocacy work that he does on many levels to try to improve the situation.

Minifie points to a simple protocol change that would make things better. It’s something that the National Council of Veterans Associations of Canada has been advising the government to do for a long time.

Since the vast majority of applications for granted, they say, why not make vets eligible for treatment before the final decision is given, on the basis of a temporary assessment.

That’s exactly the approach that was taken during COVID-19 for many Canadians, Minifie said.

The 2019 figures released in a media kit by Veteran’s Affairs showed there was a 75 to 80 percent rate of favourable decisions in 2019, with further approvals on review or appeal.

Another suggestion made by veterans’ organizations is that the bureaucracy trust medical opinions more often and make fewer demands for further opinions, which are another drag on times to reach a decision.

Many changes have been made in recent years in legislation affecting the claims, including a new pension for life.

Some changes have been welcomed and others, like creation of new claim types, may prove confusing and become a hindrance, the National Council says.

The Council said in October that it appreciates that the department has recognized the problem and announced a plan to hire more people and take some streamlining steps.

But it also said it’s essential to start fast-tracking of veterans with serious disabilities and accepting reasonable evidence on files provided by veterans and their families combined with spot audits,

The government is hiring 300 temporary workers at Veterans Affairs to reduce the backlog, which sees some veterans waiting years instead of months for an answer about disability claims.

That’s good news – but not so good that anyone is expecting that change alone to fix the backlog of claims.

The Council says it is still asking what steps will be taken to fundamentally change the process to avert a crisis in care for those who have served their country and are now left waiting.

M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Dundalk Herald