A change to the way Veterans Affairs manages the cases of disabled veterans is prompting an angry backlash among some of the people the department serves, CBC News has learned.
The department, which has been under fire for years over allegations of poor service, intends to expand an existing pilot program launched in the fall of 2016 known as "guided support," according to federal documents and officials.
A veterans advocate fears more and more ex-soldiers who are used to the consistent, personalized service of a case manager may soon find themselves dealing with more generic service agents under the guided support program.
Some severely disabled ex-soldiers say that as a result of the changes, they are losing their case managers — sometimes without prior consultation.
CBC News has documented the cases of five veterans who have recently lost case managers because of the overhaul. The majority refused to speak on the record for fear of reprisal, but one of them — long-time veterans advocate Don Leonardo — agreed to come forward.
He said the changes will make life harder for those with long-term disabilities.
A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said the Liberal government supports the implementation of the guided support pilot program and is committed to treating veterans with the utmost care, compassion and respect.
"We are committed to supporting veterans on their path to well-being by offering programs and services that help them in reaching a fulfilling life after service," said Alex Wellstead.
"Case management services works with veterans with complex needs, and their families, to achieve mutually agreed upon goals through a collaborative process. Once these goals are achieved, veterans will receive the same quality of support from a Veterans Service agent."
Case managers are expected to have a university degree, most often in social work, whereas service agents have fewer stringent qualifications.
Any veteran who has moved from case management "can move back if their needs are unmet or become more complex," Wellstead added.
A Byzantine system
The dearth of case managers in the system became a political issue during the last election campaign. Since then, the Liberal government has repeatedly touted how it has hired up to 400 staff to deal with an ever-increasing load of benefit claims.
The number of files they carry on an individual basis was also a sore point, with the government promising to reduce the ratio to 25 veterans for every one service case manager.
Department officials, who agreed to speak only on background and provide technical detail of the guided support program, said the plan is aimed at serving veterans entering the system who require a "moderate" amount of help navigating a system that many ex-soldiers describe as Byzantine.
They are the ones who only occasionally require help filling out forms, or arranging for support.
Defining 'moderate needs'
But the changes do affect veterans who are already in the system.
At least one disabled veteran upset over having his case manager replaced by a service agent said cases like his, and some that are even more serious, are also being shunted to the guided support system.
Leonardo, who is former peacekeeper, said the situation will only get worse as more veterans are "dumped" from one level of service to another.
He says the way the department defines "moderate needs" is key.
Those who have left rehabilitation but are still receiving long-term treatment are being swept up in the changes and receiving lower levels of service, he said.
"It doesn't make sense that they will make you go through veterans service officers who have less qualifications," Leonardo told CBC News. "A case manager has to have a master's degree. They're going to put the most severely injured, the ones on treatment programs, and they will have no case manager."
The difference in service, he said, will be noticeable and stark: "You're not going to have somebody that's familiar with your case. That service agent has to read your whole file every time you call in."
But the senior official, who spoke on background, said the service agents will deliver "personalized service" and will be familiar with files on an individual basis.
A recently tabled veterans department report said the agents are intended to take "full responsibility of a veteran and their family and become the primary point of contact."
Leonardo, meanwhile, also challenged the claim that someone can be put back on case management, saying his health has taken a dramatic downturn in the last few months and he's still dealing with a service agent.
He said he believes the changes are intended to meet the 25:1 ratio promised by the government.