The federal government has to assess whether its services are "truly meeting the needs of Canadians," the auditor general said today in releasing audits critical of how long it takes veterans to access services and how a northern food subsidy is provided.

Michael Ferguson found there are too many barriers to veterans getting mental-health services and benefits, including a complex application process and delays in getting their records from the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Ferguson also found Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development hasn't assessed whether retailers are passing on a federal food subsidy to northern consumers since the department started giving the money to stores rather than to Canada Post.

Other findings in the fall 2014 audit reports: 

The report suggests some government departments aren't checking on their programs to ensure they serve the people who need them.

Veterans Affairs "does not collect information or report on the effectiveness" of its mental-health strategy, the report says.

"Veterans Affairs Canada needs to know if the support provided meets the mental-health needs of veterans," it says.

"The department's performance measures focus on the number of veterans served and the timeliness of service rather than on the quality of service and the impact on veterans' lives."

Veterans application process 'slow'

While auditors found the rehabilitation program processes applications quickly, the disability benefits program used by most veterans "is slow, and the application process is complex," the report says.

Veterans Affairs "has not analyzed the time it takes" from a veteran's point of view to find out if he or she is eligible, the report says. It can double from 16 weeks processing time to a total of 32 weeks, or about eight months, because of the complicated application process.

And that's just to be approved for care.

Canada Afghanistan Commemoration 20140509

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner inspect Afghanistan War Veterans during the National Day of Honour in Ottawa last May. Veterans spend about eight months trying to fill in forms and awaiting approval for access to mental health services, the auditor general said Tuesday. ( Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"We think the department needs to put themselves in the shoes of the veterans who are trying to access these services ... so that they can understand the experience of trying to navigate that whole process just to get an answer," Ferguson told reporters.

"If you are a veteran today and if you're trying to access those services in the disability program, it's going to be the end of March before you have even been able to complete the application form. It's then going to be the end of July next year before the department will give you an answer as to whether you're going to be able to access and even then 20 per cent of the veterans won't have an answer. And after that they're going to have to find a service provider," he said.

Steve Hartwig, who struggled after serving in the former Yugoslavia 22 years ago, said it's refreshing to see so much effort put into helping veterans.

"It's something that veterans struggle with — the wait times, the difficulty of a veteran actually asking for help and then making a phone call, and then being put on hold or taking days and weeks to get anywhere can sometimes be very, very difficult," he told CBC News.

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said he reviewed the forms himself last summer and then provided a shortened version to the Royal Canadian Legion for it to provide feedback.

"Those new forms are in place as we speak," Ashlee Smith said.

Wait times up to 3 months

Part of the problem is the 16-week wait to get service and medical records transferred from National Defence.

"In our view, a 16-week wait for service and medical records is still not timely," the audit says, even though it has improved from 18 months.

Smith says Veterans Affairs is "installing VAC employees at bases to help transfer medical files [and] further investing in record digitization" to help shorten the lag time.

There can also be an additional wait for assessment at Veterans Affairs' operational stress injury clinics, auditors found: up to four months at one clinic.

AG faults veterans mental health services2:23

Smith says Veterans Affairs will "most certainly" be increasing financial resources and staffing for the operational stress injury clinics.

"When we took office there were four and as a result of our recent announcement Canada will have 18," she wrote in an email to CBC News.

The department told auditors the average wait time from referral is about three months rather than the three-week standard it set for itself.

DND also provides mental-health services in its operational and trauma stress support centres, where half of the centres had wait times of almost two months.

Auditors also recommended that Veterans Affairs include family members and family doctors in its outreach strategy, as people are most likely to consult with a family doctor about mental illness.

A news release from the Royal Canadian Legion said it's concerned about the effects on veterans and their family members when veterans can't access the services they need. 

"The legion position has repeatedly stated that every day there is a delay in a veteran getting access to care, they are suffering needlessly," the release said.

Veterans Affairs says it spent $508 million on mental-health services in 2012-13, with about 15,000 veterans and still-serving personnel eligible for mental-health support as of last spring. The report says another 1,000 veterans are self-identified as having a mental-health condition.​


  • This story has been edited from its original version to correct an error. The predecessor program to Nutrition North provided a subsidy to Canada Post, not directly to Canadians.
    Nov 25, 2014 11:06 AM ET