The military ombudsman and the NDP's defence critic say they are being bombarded — sometimes daily — with complaints from retiring soldiers over delays in getting pension cheques — a problem the country's defence minister vows to fix.
The problem is long-standing and well-known, Harjit Sajjan said in a statement Friday.
"As minister of national defence, I find this backlog to be absolutely unacceptable." he said. "I am committed to fixing this problem. It won't happen overnight, but I can assure you my office and this government take this issue very seriously."
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Sajjan, a former reserve force lieutenant-colonel, said he's working with the military leadership and Veterans Affairs Canada to end to the backlog once and for all.
But Gary Walbourne, the military ombudsman, says the problem will only get worse with looming changes to the federal bureaucracy.
The ombudsman's office is tracking a number of complaints from both full-time and part-time members who have waited weeks, even months to receive retirement payments.
"The frustration level cannot be understated," Walbourne said in a statement posted on the Canadian Forces ombudsman's website early Friday.
"In extreme cases, retiring members have been left unable to pay their mortgages or rent while awaiting their pensions. Additionally, members find themselves out-of-pocket for medical expenses while awaiting coverage to be activated as a CAF pension recipient."
The statement cited one case where a retiring soldier had to pay $12,000 while awaiting his pension and related family medical coverage to begin.
The military watchdog has tracked the issue since 2007, logging 1,300 complaints on pensions and severance-pay delays during that time and is currently getting two new cases each day.
Significant backlog for reservists
In 2011, the auditor general examined the plight of reservists specifically and a found significant backlog in the handling of retirement pensions for part-time soldiers — something the former Conservative government promised to fix.
"However, the backlog and chronic, excessive delays persist," said Walbourne's statement, which noted the official wait time for reservists ranges between four and 36 weeks. Regular force member reportedly wait anywhere between three to 14 weeks.
But Walbourne says cases under review in his office suggest those figures may be on the low side, because investigators are finding much longer delays.
And it can only get worse with the planned merger of National Defence's pension services branch with Public Services and Procurement Canada — a move that's slated to begin this month with a targeted completion of this July.
Staff will be training from April to June, in anticipation of the merger, said Walbourne.
"That will obviously limit the ability of staff to tackle the existing backlog between now and the merger in July," he said.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said his office also receives a flood of complaints every week about the issue.
Not only is he concerned about effects of the merger, but he worries that the procurement department doesn't have the understanding of military culture needed to do the job effectively.
"We have this consolidation of services coming up and every time this has happened with veterans, they get poorer service," Garrison said.
A defence official, speaking on background because of the sensitivity of the subject, said National Defence had established a special group —known as a tiger team — to tackle the immediate backlog, starting in mid-April.
But over the long term, the department intends to examine the process to see how it can be made more efficient from the moment a member chooses retirement.
Garrison said the most important way to improve the system would be to hire the appropriate number of staff to process the paperwork.