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Department leaves veterans in ‘financial limbo,’ behind on half its targets

Veterans Affairs missed 54 per cent of its targets last year, which opposition MPs called both 'breathtaking' and 'horrible.' More resources are needed, critics agreed, but the culture also has to change.

Veterans Affairs, led by Minister Seamus O'Regan, filed 54 per cent of its performance targets as requiring attention, according to its latest departmental performance report. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 12:00 AM

Canada’s Veterans Affairs Department is behind on half of its performance targets, department results released last month reveal, which opposition MPs call unacceptable and a “horrible performance” built off systemic problems.

Veterans Affairs missed 14 of 26 targets for the 2016-17 year, filing 54 per cent under “attention required,” leading to delayed decisions on veteran services like career training, long-term care, and disability support. 

“The situations [veterans] face, they need service right away,” said NDP veterans affairs critic Irene Mathyssen (London-Fanshawe, Ont.). “People cannot sit in financial limbo over and over again.”

Disability decisions and applications represented some of the department’s worst results. The vast majority of injured veterans are waiting more than four months to learn if they qualify for financial support. Only 26 per cent of veterans waiting on their disability award have applications that are less than 16 weeks old. The department goal is for 80 per cent of applicants to meet that 16-week threshold. Similarly, only 29 per cent of disability pension applications were under the four-month mark. The department was also behind on its decisions for those claiming disability.

  

Issues veterans face as reported by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman in 2016-17. Graph by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

“We are looking at the entire disability application process, from intake to decisions, to expedite decisions and respond to Veterans’ needs more quickly,” said spokesperson Marc Lescoutre by email in response to questions from The Hill Times, noting the number of veterans claiming disability benefits has increased by more than 20 per cent over the last two years.

He said the average turnaround time on first applications is 106 days, for reassessment it’s 71 days and for a departmental review the average is 85 days. One veteran waited 1,007 days for a decision, due to “extensive time required” to assemble the documents in what Mr. Lescoutre said was a “unique” circumstance.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, N.L.) did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent’s 2016-17 annual report, which was released Nov. 20, noted accessing the Disability Award and pension were one of the most common issues veterans faced. Previous media reports by The Canadian Press and Globe and Mail made clear injured Canadian Forces veterans face long waits on decisions, but these latest results show slow departmental response affects a host of programs, including long-term care, career training, and more.

  

NDP veterans affairs critic and deputy whip Irene Mathyssen. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The departmental performance report also showed veterans who suffered critical injuries were likely to wait longer than 12 weeks for benefits. It’s the same with those who were permanently impaired in duty, affecting their chance at employment; only 31 per cent of those decisions are within three months.

“These are severely injured people and they’re meeting their targets 31 per cent of the time? Not acceptable,” said Ms. Mathyssen.

And, only 31 per cent of its eligibility decisions for career transition services were made within the specified four weeks. It took double the time, or 9.6 weeks, to meet that 80 per cent marker.

“Now that the surge in other financial benefits has lessened, we have allocated staff back to this benefit and will be achieving the 80 per cent standard by end of calendar year,” said Mr. Lescoutre.

  

 

Conservative-era staffing cuts still hurting response time: VAC 

Officials blamed delays on “conflicting priorities” among staff who were expected to respond to a number of programs. They also juggled larger workloads with more applications in several programs, especially following the Liberal government’s October 2016 decision to increase the Earnings Loss Benefit from 75 per cent to 90 per cent. That program change was compounded by a 93-per-cent increase in applications for CAF Long-Term Disability compared to the previous year.

Only 67 per cent of applications for that benefit were processed within four weeks, The Canadian Press reported, dropping from 86 per cent completed in 2014-15.

The multitude of programs creates a “layering” effect, Ms. Mathyssen said, confusing veterans during applications and dividing staff responsibilities, ultimately slowing response rates.

The department told The Hill Times it faced a 32 per cent increase over the past two years in the number of claims that needed adjudication. While it’s hired 50 adjudicators since 2015 to address the backlog, “these resources weren’t enough to overcome the higher than planned uptake in applications,” Mr. Lescoutre said.

“That still leaves a shortfall,” said Ms. Mathyssen.

Between September 2009 and September 2015 the department lost 23 per cent of its staff, or more than 950 positions, according to Treasury Board of Canada data.

 

Government data shows the changes in staff each year classified as permanent and term, with totals including casual and student workers. All numbers are at year-end with the exception of 2016, which references March numbers, and 2017 which includes the approximately 400 staff the department says has been added since Budget 2016. The Hill Times graph created with Infogram

The bulk of those reductions came after 2011, when the Harper government launched its Deficit Reduction Action Plan, cutting the public service overall. Because of Budget 2016, the department hired more than 420 new staff, it confirmed in July.

Even so, the Liberals have failed to reverse the impact of Conservative cuts, said Ms. Mathyssen, who argued more staff and training are needed to address the performance gaps.

“Hiring the human beings to deal with the human beings is absolutely key.”

Conservative veterans critic Phil McColeman (Brantford-Brant, Ont.) noted the common thread in the responses to questions from The Hill Times, and in public explanations on the performance, is the department doesn’t have the resources.

That may be true, he said, noting “these cases are not easy to deal with, but you’ve got to set up systems… The reality is if you historically look back at service levels, they’ve never been at the highest standards.”

 

Department culture shows delays are a systemic problem: Conservative critic

Conservative veterans affairs critic Phil McColeman, pictured in 2015. The Hill Times file photograph

Department culture continuously fails to be veterans-centric and offer good customer support, Mr. McColeman said.

“This has been a constant theme over a long period of time,” he said, adding it was true when Conservatives were in power and it’s not about “pointing the finger” at any particular government.

The data verifies that even as the government says it’s serving veterans, “we’re falling down in doing that” said Mr. McColeman, echoing Ms. Mathyssen’s frustration that officials and politicians who testify before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs come with an attitude that things are under control and they’re doing everything they can.

“It’s difficult to articulate where the breakdown is… but there’s breakdown in the system that continuously pops up,” he said, adding the performance is “horrible.”

“It’s terrible that we’re in that situation.”

The “breathtaking” numbers for unmet targets present a far different image than the “incredibly rosy picture” Ms. Mathyssen said government and the department paint.

 

Long-term care ‘downloaded’ onto provinces: NDP critic

More than half of veterans looking for long-term care placements face delays in what the government said is indicative of waits common with many provincial health authorities.

It said the 45 per cent performance marker on meeting a 10-week decision isn’t appropriate since provincial decisions are “beyond the control” of the department. Rather, they’d like reporting to take into account the date that the department determined that a veteran was eligible for financial support and later, the date a veteran
is admitted.

That rationale “downloads” the responsibility onto provinces, Ms. Mathyssen said.

“A veteran serves the nation. A veteran is a responsibility of the nation.”

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Department targets not met

All department targets (except cemetery maintenance) have a goal of 80 per cent of cases falling within the stated time frame.

26% of Disability Award applications awaiting a decision that are less than 16 weeks old

29% of Disability Pension applications awaiting a decision that are less than 16 weeks old

31% of Career Transition Services eligibility decisions rendered within 4 weeks

31% of Permanent Impairment Allowance decisions rendered within 12 weeks

45% of Long Term Care decisions completed within 10 weeks

48% of Disability Award decisions rendered within 16 weeks

48% % of Critical Injury Benefit decisions rendered within 12 weeks

59% of Disability Pension decisions rendered within 16 weeks

71% of Family Caregiver Relief Benefit eligibility decisions rendered within 6 weeks

74 % of rehabilitation program eligibility decisions rendered within 2 weeks

73% of Canadian Forces Income Support decisions rendered within 4 weeks

70% of Veterans completing the Rehabilitation Services and Vocational Assistance Program who reported that their (goal 80%)

75% of War Veterans Allowance decisions rendered within 4 weeks

2,710 maintenance items completed in Canadian cemeteries (goal: 3,000)

— Source: Treasury Board of Canada