Ottawa·Feature

Veterans long-term care wings face 'expiry date'

Roughly 600,000 veterans who served after the 1953 ceasefire in Korea are not eligible for the same priority access to long-term care as their predecessors. The Royal Canadian Legion wants the federal government to open up access to 15 veterans facilities to all generations — before veterans wings become a thing of the past.

'Veterans want to be with veterans,' say new generation of vets shut out of wings devoted to their care

Retired sergeant Alannah Gilmore served 23 years for the Canadian Forces as a combat medic. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

If there's one thing Alannah Gilmore, a retired sergeant, can't forget — it's that anything could happen at any moment. 

As a former combat medic for the Canadian Forces, she cared for those wounded after suicide explosions in Afghanistan. Her husband lost both of his legs to a land mine during the same tour of duty. Gilmore had always hoped that if she ever needed long-term care, it would be at a facility dedicated to vets. But like roughly 600,000 veterans, she doesn't have that option.

"I'm highly disappointed," Gilmore said. "These hospitals exist. The programs do exist. Why are we taking away this as an option for families?"

As it stands now, only those who fought in the Second World War and the Korean War are eligible for long-term care homes dedicated to veterans, while anyone who served after the 1953 ceasefire in Korea is not.

Why are the newer generations of veterans not deserving?- Alannah Gilmore, retired combat medic

More than 1,000 delegates from across Canada will discuss the issue at a Royal Canadian Legion convention in St. John's today.

Members are expected to vote on a resolution to push the federal government to open up access to 15 veterans facilities to all generations — before veterans wings become a thing of the past.

"It's an expiry date. Why are the newer generations of veterans not deserving?" Gilmore said. "The difference between having the veterans wings is it's full of veterans. It's being with like-minded people. Maybe you have a wing and half of them have PTSD. Who relates better to someone with PTSD is someone who has been in a similar circumstance." 

If veterans wings disappear, all modern-day veterans — those who served in the Cold War, peacekeeping missions and in Afghanistan — will have to get in line with the general public on provincial wait lists for care. Veterans Affairs will cover the cost if a veteran's illness or injury is related to their service.
Alannah Gilmore is "highly disappointed" modern-day veterans don't have the same access to long-term care as their predecessors. (Courtesy of Alannah Gilmore)

Decision made in 1966

It was a decision made half a century ago that's to blame for excluding post-Korean War veterans from the same long-term care as those who came before them.
Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr says what's in place today is a better model of care. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

During the First World War, the federal government operated 44 hospitals across Canada to give treatment to injured soldiers. As universal and provincial health care services evolved, Veterans Affairs Canada said the need for treatment declined. The number of facilities open to veterans reduced and in 1955 there were 18 remaining.

Then in 1966, the Government of Canada decided to transfer all of its federal health care facilities over to the provinces — a move that was only recently completed when Ste. Anne's Hospital was transferred to Quebec in April 2016. Part of the agreement was that Second World War and Korean War veterans would have the same priority access to these facilities. 

Meanwhile, modern-day veterans have the same access to long-term care as the general public.

Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr said the system has evolved — and what's in place today is much better than the old model.

"In fact, veterans have access to over 1,500 places where they're getting care in their communities, where they can be closer to their families," Hehr told CBC News.

"Our veterans are overwhelmingly happy that they're there. They have access to care in their communities, not in some antiquated place far away from home. It's really actually working quite well."

More than two-thirds of the 6,640 people Veterans Affairs currently supports are in community beds in nursing homes across Canada rather than the remaining 15 provincially operated facilities with veterans wings.

Veterans wings in jeopardy 

Veterans facilities are expected to turn into nursing homes for the general public when the last of the Second World War and Korean War veterans are gone.

But the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre in Ottawa doesn't want to lose a program it calls successful. The head of the centre said it gives a higher level of care for veterans thanks to $8.7 million annually in funding from Veterans Affairs. More than half of its 450 beds are devoted to vets, while the rest are available for the general public.

We have a very valuable asset here- Akos Hoffer , CEO of the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre

The centre has developed a reputation for its arts and crafts studios, music therapy, as well as a dedicated psychogeriatric resource nurse who helps veterans with dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder and behaviour issues. 

"We have a very valuable asset here," CEO Akos Hoffer said. "You can see how beautiful it is. We also have just the most wonderful staff anywhere here, who now have decades of experience of providing care to veterans to civilians. When it comes to veterans they have unique cultural and clinic needs."

"We are more than willing to work with the province and Veterans Affairs to see if there's a way to extend that benefit to modern veterans as well."

George Couillard, injured in a factory during the Second World War, now lives in the centre's veterans wing. He's upset future generations could miss out. 

"It bothers me to be honest with you," Couillard said. "Who else has offered so much for his country? No one else has put his life on the line for his fellow man more than veterans."

George Couillard is a veteran resident who lives in long-term care at the Perley Rideau, as does his wife. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Fight to give all generations access 

Disappointment over what's being called an "unfair" double standard by some has sparked veteran advocacy groups and politicians to start pushing for change before the veterans wings close.

"I'm hearing from veterans and their families, this is what their parents want and talked about throughout their whole life," said Ray McInnes, the director of the services bureau for the Royal Canadian Legion.

"Many of these people, they served their country, they never asked for any money from the government. No disability pensions or awards. And yet now, they want to go into long-term care, spend their time with other veterans and they're being denied. Let's take care of all our veterans. It's time for policies to change."

Let's take care of  all our veterans. It's time for policies to change- Ray  McInnes , Royal Canadian Legion

Retired Major-General Lou Cuppens would be ineligible to access a veterans' home, despite 38 years of service. 

"I feel I should be with my brothers in arms," Cuppens said. "It's like being a member of a very large family. We bond when we start our training. And we bond right through our whole service. We all suffered the same hardships. We have experienced the same combat, strife, the same period of time away from family."

A music session with Second World War and Korean War veterans at the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre in Ottawa. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Private members bill for priority status

A stalled Ontario private member's bill proposed giving veterans priority access to jump the wait list in Ontario long-term care homes.

It won all-party support at Queen's Park during second reading in April 2015 but still has to be called to committee, said NDP MPP Cindy Forster, who introduced the bill.

"It's very disappointing," she said."At the same time, this is at a standstill. We have the health system saying the veterans beds aren't even full."

But Ontario MPP Dipika Damerla, who is the associate minister of health and long-term care, said the provincial government is doing its due diligence on the proposed legislation.

It's very disappointing.- NDP MPP Cindy Forster

"The Liberal government wants to make sure the bill has no unintended consequences," Damerla said.

"To make sure that, as we prioritize people, that people who are in urgent need and in crisis care always have that priority, as well." 

The department of Veterans Affairs said that as demographics change, changes may come. If it comes to the point where there is a major problem with veterans accessing long-term care, the department said it will be on their radar.

Ontario Associate Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Dipika Damerla says a bill to give veterans priority might have "unintended consequences." (CBC News)