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Veterans benefit backlog requires a bold and creative solution

A version of this article appeared in The Hill Times.

May 17, 2021 – It is the position of the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada (NCVA) that substantial progress and, indeed, a potential breakthrough is becoming attainable with respect to our crusade to compel Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to take innovative and creative steps to alleviate the current unacceptable backlog/turnaround times for veterans’ disability claims.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs issued its highly material report “Clearing the Jam: Addressing the Backlog of Disability Benefit Claims at Veterans Affairs Canada” on Friday, December 11, 2020, following many months of study and stakeholder input. NCVA presented our submission to the committee in November 2020 as part and parcel of its deliberations.

The Standing Committee’s findings identify quite clearly the present crisis in VAC adjudication and call for urgent and dramatic change in departmental protocols. Most importantly from our perspective, the report endorses our position that a form of automatic entitlement/pre-approval, together with fast-track protocols, need to be adopted by the department to address this significant challenge. As we have strongly argued, systematic change is absolutely necessary. It is self-evident that the departmental measures to increase staffing and resources will not be sufficient on their own to resolve this deplorable state of affairs, as underlined by the Parliamentary Budget Office report of September 2020. Indeed, it is fully expected that the backlog will only be exacerbated as increased numbers of CAF members are medically released following the conclusion of the pandemic.

We would suggest that the Standing Committee’s report reflects a comprehensive canvassing of a number of the salient issues surrounding the backlog/wait time problem. With respect to the adjudicative initiatives we have focused on, the following represents the major recommendations made by the Standing Committee in its report to Parliament:

  • Recommendation 13: That Veterans Affairs Canada continue to automatically approve applications for medical conditions presumptively attributed to service in the Canadian Armed Forces or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, table to the Committee its list of such medical conditions, and continue to expand it through research in Canada and in allied countries.
  • Recommendation 14: That Veterans Affairs Canada conduct a study on women-specific medical conditions related to service in the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police and, when applicable, add them to the list of medical conditions presumptively connected to military service.
  • Recommendation 15: That the Minister of Veterans Affairs amend the Veterans Well-being Regulations to allow for the automatic pre-approval of disability benefit claims, and that Veterans Affairs Canada implement a pilot project to identify the risks and advantages of such automatic pre-approval of claims.
  • Recommendation 16: That Veterans Affairs Canada conduct an in-depth review of the Veterans Emergency Fund in the context of its use to support veterans waiting in the backlog and report back to the committee with their findings.
  • Conclusion: Adopting these measures would exhibit good faith in dealing with the existing backlog and uphold the fundamental principle that has guided all Canadian veterans compensation programs since the First World War: the benefit of the doubt. Committee members want to reaffirm this principle and reassure veterans and their families that their well-being is the sole and unique purpose of Veterans Affairs Canada.

In response to these compelling recommendations, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Lawrence MacAulay, recently provided a formal reply to the Committee setting out what constitutes, in our respectful judgment, a statement of good intentions from the department’s perspective in relation to increasing staffing, technological advances et al. We remain convinced that a more innovative approach is required to truly address this enduring backlog and wait time crisis in VAC.

In this context, we are somewhat encouraged that the Deputy Minister and senior officials of the department are ostensibly in the process of seeking legislative/regulatory authority to implement appropriate adjudicative changes required in accord with the Standing Committee conclusions and our long-standing proposals. It is our reading of the current situation that the department has hopefully recognized that there is sound rationale for incorporating the necessary adjudicative protocol amendments as the fundamental means of alleviating this unacceptable backlog/turnaround time conundrum. NCVA will continue to press the department to expedite the implementation of the necessary changes outlined by the Standing Committee report.

Insofar as the 2021 federal budget, brought down by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on April 19, it is noteworthy that the government has recognized that:

“… [v]eterans are three to four times as likely to suffer from depressive or anxiety disorders, and over 15 times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), than the general population. Veterans are entitled to financial support for mental health care through the Treatment Benefit Program but they can wait up to two years to receive mental health care while waiting for their disability benefit application to be confirmed. …

“Budget 2021 proposes to provide $140 million over five years starting in 2021-22, and $6 million ongoing, to Veterans Affairs Canada for a program that would cover the mental health care costs of veterans with PTSD, depressive, or anxiety disorders while their disability benefit application is being processed.”

Inasmuch as this budgetary proposal does not comprehensively extend our favoured concept of automatic entitlement/pre-approval, it does provide a significant step forward in recognizing that treatment benefits should be granted immediately and not be dependent on the disability application process, which can indeed take up to two years. Thus, this provision is hopefully a springboard to expanding this principle so that veterans are not left in a precarious situation for many months or even years before health care/treatment benefits are available to them. The government, through the budget, has determined that mental health care (PTSD, depressive or anxiety disorders) should be given priority at this time. It will be our continuing position that this approach should be applied to all physical disabilities so that veterans in serious need of health care or treatment benefits should be granted the same sense of priority.

Although this stop-gap initiative has the potential to trigger much-needed treatment benefits for those veterans suffering urgent mental health issues, it still begs the larger question as to whether VAC is prepared in relation to the overall adjudication of disability benefits to fully operationalize the requisite systemic measures needed to ameliorate the pervasive administrative and bureaucratic delays currently confronting Canadian veterans and their families.

As we have said all along with respect to the backlog/wait times crisis, desperate times require bold and creative measures. Veterans deserve nothing less during these challenging times where financial and health concerns have been intensified by COVID-19!

Brian Forbes
Chairman of the Executive Committee, The War Amps
Chairman, National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada

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