British Columbia

'Contemptuous culture' within Veterans Affairs ministry harming service delivery, claims former soldier

A former soldier injured in the line of duty says few veterans are approved for services such as education grants and medical assistance, while thousands of others wait in an administrative backlog.

But minister maintains culture is changing and ministry is becoming more compassionate

A former military intelligence officer injured in the line of duty in 2008 says a contemptuous federal bureaucracy is complicating veterans' interactions with the department. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Despite promises from Veteran Affairs former soldiers will have increased access to services, one British Columbia soldier claims a contemptuous culture within the ministry's civil service means veterans are being denied access to programs.

Matthew Kane, a former military intelligence officer who was injured in the line of duty in 2008, characterized his and others' interactions with federal bureaucrats as contemptuous.

"It's that bureaucracy within Veteran Affairs that is tearing apart what the minister hopes to accomplish," he told CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

The government promised to reinstate lifetime monthly pension payments  — which were abolished by the former Conservative administration  — as part of its 2015 election platform.

Minister Seamus O'Regan announced details of those plans in December, which have come under fire by veterans groups, such as the National Council of Veterans Associations, which argues the plan will leave many former soldiers worse off financially.

Under the proposed changes, veterans can choose either a lump sum or monthly payout option, with additional allowances tied to the level of injury individuals are determined to have.

Services denied

One thing Kane — who is in the running for leadership of the B.C. Conservative Party — and O'Regan agree on is that issues facing soldiers are not all about money.

Kane said he attempted suicide multiple times over a span of three years, but when he presented the medical charts to the ministry to show evidence of his struggle, his condition was dismissed by staff.

"Veterans struggle day in and day out to get the benefits they need and this is one of my concerns with the program that the minister has introduced," said Kane.

He also described the experience of a fellow veteran and friend who Kane said was denied access to the education benefits provided for under existing legislation.

"They offered him a maximum of about 70 per cent of what the legislation says, and it was only for a bachelor's degree," he said.

The veteran did not want a bachelor's degree and was allegedly told he would not receive funding for any other form of education.

"I only know one vet who's ever received the education training benefit. Everyone else who's ever applied for it has been denied," Kane said.

About 450 veterans accessed education benefits in the 2016/2017 fiscal year, according to the Ministry of Veteran Affairs.

Kane said he believes O'Regan has the best of intentions to improve services through new legislation announced late last year, but he has little faith the current bureaucratic reality supports those good intentions.

In an email, the ministry cited a January 2017 survey that found 81 per cent of veterans surveyed were satisfied with the service they received from ministry staff and 95 per cent felt staff treated them with respect.

'More compassionate'

Kane spoke with Minister O'Regan following a town-hall style meeting the minister held in Vancouver Tuesday.

He said he asked for the minister's help with one specific case, because Veteran Affairs staff were denying the man access to services. Kane said the minister acted quickly, and the issues were resolved the same day.

"You shouldn't have to go directly to the minister to get this help," said Kane.

Minister O'Regan defended the proposed legislative changes on CBC's The Early Edition on Tuesday, though he was not directly asked about the attitude or culture of ministry staff.

"We have a backlog issues, there's no question about it. We're attempting to put as many resources on it as we can," he said, referring to a figure of 29,000 veterans currently waiting to find out if they qualify for benefits.

The ministry also held a review that focused in part on improving service delivery to veterans and their families where internal service standards were not being met.

Following that review the ministry said it introduced a "simplified decision-making process for some medical conditions."

That approach included "focusing on processing the oldest disability claims first."

"If there's one small upside to this, it's that we have become more efficient and, I would argue, more compassionate: those people on the other end of the line, dealing with those veterans," said O'Regan.

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition