Veterans minister defends department's handling of mental health services

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay stood behind his department's move to review mental health services for the families of former soldiers during a sometimes testy House of Commons committee meeting earlier today.

Veterans family members report being cut off from federally funded therapy services

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay defended his department's handling of therapy services for veterans' families during a Commons committee hearing today. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay stood behind his department's move to review mental health services for families of former soldiers during a sometimes testy House of Commons committee meeting earlier today.

MacAulay told the all-party veterans committee he was told by his department that the program was being "applied inconsistently across the country."

A number of family members of veterans suffering from post traumatic stress and other conditions — including spouses and children — have come forward recently to say they have been cut off from previously approved, federally funded treatment.

The veterans ombudsman also has received a number of complaints and has pointed out that federal officials have not changed the policy governing access to family mental health services — just their interpretation of those rules.

MacAulay told MPs that he's ordered the department to maintain "maximum flexibility" in enforcing the rules. That didn't convince opposition members on the committee; they fired a number of pointed questions at him, some of which he couldn't answer.

'We found the problem. We dealt with the problem.'

Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall wanted to know why many veterans had to find out about the change through their counsellors, rather than from the department through their electronic service accounts.

MacAulay suggested the program review didn't need to be posted publicly.

"We found the problem. We dealt with the problem and [we] make sure the ones that should require mental health do get mental health," the minister told the committee.

"And we make sure that does happen. And I will make sure it will continue to happen."

At last count, the department had notified 133 individual families in writing, via letter, that their coverage was being reviewed and could be terminated.

Veterans Affairs quietly tightened access to mental health services for families after the policy came under fire in 2018 — when it was revealed that a convicted killer, the son of a veteran, had received taxpayer-funded treatment for the PTSD caused by the murder he committed.

The case of Christopher Garnier, who never served in the military, was the subject of outrage in the House of Commons. Conservative MP Phil McColeman demanded Tuesday to see evidence that the convicted killer had actually been cut off from the veterans benefits.

MacAulay insisted he had been, but also asked his officials to confirm.

There are two federal mental health support programs for families of veterans; both come with restrictions. The first program allows spouses and children up to 20 sessions per year and is conducted through a 1-800 phone line.

'Family members are suffering'

The second program is the one that's seeing its guidelines enforced more strictly now. It ties the treatment of a family member to the care, well-being and recovery of the veteran and is supposed to be offered short-term.

"When those family members are cut off, it does not help the veteran's well being, or state," said Wagantall. "Those family members are suffering because of the veteran's state and this does not help."

MacAulay and department staff have insisted that those who no longer qualify will be given help finding other services, but Wagantall suggested families are sceptical because officials are already swamped by an enormous backlog of tens of thousands of disability benefits applications.

Internal Veterans Affairs documents, obtained by CBC News, show that as of the end of January there were 46,003 benefits requests waiting to be processed — almost half of them (20,022) had been waiting more than 16 weeks, which is supposed to be the service standard for turnaround.

The documents show veterans making first-time applications wait 41 weeks for an answer. The average wait time for all applications is 32 weeks.

"The backlog is unacceptable," MacAulay told the committee. "The waits faced by veterans [are] unacceptable. We need to tackle this issue and address this backlog and I can assure you that is my top priority."

The department has doubled the number of staff processing applications, but senior officials said the increase in applications is outstripping their efforts.

New Democrat veterans critic Rachel Blaney said the department "really needs to get on top of this" and questioned whether the Liberal government has a sound plan.




Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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