29,000 veterans waiting to see if they get disability benefits
‘They just give up, not realizing that if they persist they could be entitled to a benefit down the road'
There's a growing number of veterans across the country waiting to find out if they will get disability benefits from the federal government.
In the last eight months, the number of people waiting has gone up about 50 per cent to 29,000, according to Veterans Affairs. About 9,000 of those applicants are waiting longer than the public service standard of 16 weeks for help. That 9,000 represents the entire backlog of applicants with delayed files, according to the department
Veterans are waiting on money to help them cope with everything from hearing loss to post-traumatic stress disorder. The average wait for a veteran to find out if they qualify for disability benefits is 26 weeks. It's not clear how many of the people waiting are from Nova Scotia, as Veterans Affairs said it doesn't sort applications by region.
The entire process has frustrated and angered veterans, according to Peter Stoffer, who volunteers with 13 veterans organizations across the country and is a former MP and NDP veterans affairs critic.
"It is very frustrating for a lot of folks, especially if money is an issue," said Stoffer, who also works part time with Trauma Healing Centers, a company that assists those with trauma using a variety of pain-relief methods, including cannabis.
'They just give up'
Stoffer said he hears complaints about the long wait for benefits on a regular basis. Application forms are complicated and a simple mistake can cause a form to be sent back after spending weeks being processed, he said.
In some cases, it can take half a year to get a benefits application completed by Veterans Affairs, Stoffer said. Others who have been denied benefits don't appeal the decision and end up with nothing despite having a legitimate claim.
"They just give up, not realizing that if they persist they could be entitled to a benefit down the road.… They just give up because they're so upset with the system."
'Streamlining the process'
But the system is changing, according to Rick Christopher, the director general of centralized operations division for Veterans Affairs.
In 2016, the department added 90 people to adjudicate claims and is looking at hiring more.
"One of the things that we're doing is streamlining the process for making decisions on certain types of applications: hearing loss, post-traumatic stress disorder and musculoskeletal conditions. We're also adding additional resources and doing what we can to get more people working on these claims," said Christopher.
Despite that, 29,000 veterans are still waiting to find out what benefits they will get, if any.
Christopher said the department's ability to process claims has been "outstripped by a high number of applications recently." He said he doesn't know what's led to the high number of recent claims.
Stoffer wants bigger changes
Stoffer said the changes to Veterans Affairs don't go far enough.
He would like to see all veterans' benefits and medical needs set up before they leave the military so they can easily continue to receive care. Until that happens, Stoffer would like to see Veterans Affairs hire workers to sit down with veterans and go through their application forms to make sure they're properly filled out.
Stoffer recommends veterans have their entire medical file in hand when they leave the Forces. They should also try to walk through the disability application with a friend who has done it before or look for help from the Royal Canadian Legion or local MP's office, said Stoffer.
"That's the most important thing — making sure these forms are all done properly with the appropriate medical information so it speeds up the process."
With files from Information Morning