Federal cuts are threatening the future of a program that hires veterans who have been medically discharged from the Canadian Forces, according to a Liberal senator.

"It is a program that's in trouble," says Percy Downe, who was so worried about the fate of the program he wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers asking why they weren't doing more to support the program.

In a letter to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq CBC News obtained through the Access to Information Act, Downe writes, "I urge you to instruct your deputy minister to follow the spirit and intent of the regulation and appoint qualified medically released veterans ... to employment in your federal government department."

The priority hiring program for Canadian Forces veterans discharged due to physical or psychological injuries was introduced in 2005 as part of the Veterans Charter. RCMP officers were also included in the program, but most participants are vets.

According to a CBC News analysis of statistics from the Public Service Commission, the federal body responsible for administering the program, Health Canada has hired nine people on the priority list, well behind National Defence, the Correctional Service of Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Of the nearly 1,000 people who found jobs through the program, National Defence hired 73 per cent of them. Nine federal employers, including the Privy Council Office, haven't hired anyone.

"Other than the Department of National Defence, most departments are not participating. So you have finance, Health Canada, a host of departments who are hiring the bare minimum, if any at all. All of these people who served in the Canadian Forces have a range of skills," says Downe.

"Somebody said to me, 'Well, what can you do with a tank driver?' Well, all the ministers have drivers. In a government that hires 300,000 people across Canada, there's a position for everyone if the government is clearly motivated. My concern is the intent is not there to solve the problem."

When asked about that breakdown, and the fact DND does most of the hiring while others do none, the Public Service Commission of Canada said the agency is doing its best to administer the program.

"You also have to work with the skill set that these people bring forward," says Hélène Laurendeau, senior vice-president policy branch for the commission.

The statistics also show that while hiring grew at a steady rate for the first five years of the program, it dropped off by about 17 per cent between the two most recent fiscal years, in part because there were fewer people on the list.

The former president of the commission addressed the problem during an appearance before the Senate subcommittee on Veterans Affairs.

"Given the current context of fiscal restraint," said Maria Barrados, "it is anticipated that the upward trend in the number of priority persons, coupled with decreased staffing actions, may present challenges to the placement of priority persons."

Still, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney insists he's not worried about the program's future.

"I believe in coming years, although there are major adjustments to our human resources, we will still need hundreds of new employees to fill a lot of positions within the public service," Blaney told CBC News. "So, as minister of Veterans Affairs, I will still support the program."

A program with promise

Veterans have five years to sign on to the priority hiring list once they have been medically released. That time period allows members time to convalesce, be it from a physical wound or a psychological injury such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Once they're well enough to re-enter the workforce, the veterans can be placed on the list for a two-year period, and apply for jobs for which they feel they're qualified. It's mandatory for all federal departments to consult the list when hiring. Those who fail to find a job within the two years are off the list.

But part of the problem is that veterans fall lower down the list than many federal workers. Federal employees declared surplus, personnel returning from leave of absence and laid-off workers are all ranked higher on the surplus list than medically released vets. This means departments have to consider them first.

In order to move vets further up the list, the government would have to amend the Public Service Employment Act.

"I’m sure there’s no party in the House or Senate who would object to that," says Downe.

When asked if this was a possibility, a spokesperson for the Veterans Affairs minister responded by email saying, "Minister Blaney has instructed his officials to examine ways we can enhance our capability to hire more veterans within the public service."

Downe and other critics of the program say that unless a change is made and the length of time vets are allowed to stay on the list is expanded beyond two years, the program will continue to be less effective in the face of continued budget cuts.

But Laurendeau says it's too early to reach any conclusions.

"It is clear that volume for all priorities will be something that we have to monitor. I cannot speculate whether this program will be more or less affected than the other types of priorities.

"That said, it has been a successful program. There is a high level of support for it. And for the time being, we don't have any reason to doubt its success. But should figures start to become worrisome, we will engage with our partners to see whether it fits its purpose."

If you have specific knowledge about this program that you'd like to share, please feel free to contact David McKie at david_mckie@cbc.ca