Backlog in military pensions won't be cleared until end of year

It will be the end of the year before the enormous backlog of military pension payment files is cleared up, National Defence officials say, and it will likely be October before a similar stockpile of outstanding severance payment claims are rectified.

'Humiliating and insulting': ex-naval officer says he prepared for pension delay, but still ended up in debt

Former naval lieutenant Stephen Wight is one of thousands of ex-military members who has been left in debt while waiting for pension cheques. (Provided by Stephen Wight)

It will be the end of the year before the enormous backlog of military pension payment files is cleared up, National Defence officials say, and it will likely be October before a similar stockpile of outstanding severance payment claims are rectified.

Both of these long-standing logjams have left an increasing number of newly retired military members in a financial lurch.

CBC News has learned of at least one veteran who was tired of waiting and recently threatened legal action — something that jolted the system into action and resulted in delivery of his outstanding payments.

The veteran declined an on-the-record interview, but military ombudsman Gary Walbourne said he was aware of the case and voiced concern that frustration among those affected has reached a boiling point.

Others, such as retired naval lieutenant Stephen Wight, say waiting more than five months for his pension, severance and Veterans Affairs benefits caused him financial chaos.

Wight is now receiving his military pension, but is still waiting for a separate top-up of benefits for injuries received while in the navy, as promised by the Veterans department.

Wight says he has maxed out his credit, borrowed from family and even took a job to stay afloat. Yet despite all of that, he has missed mortgage payments and is about to miss a car payment.

From the time I started filling out the paperwork, to the time I received my first cheque, it was almost a year. That's unacceptable.- Retired naval lieutenant Stephen Wight

"It's unacceptable, it's insulting — no matter how much time you've put into the military," said Wight, who lives in Fredericton and spent 34 years in uniform. "Departing with dignity ends at the gate. We're just a number. It's insulting and humiliating."

The last five years of his career were spent as a human resources manager in Halifax.

Wight says he was well aware of the problems in the system and prepared to meet them by budgeting and setting aside money. But the wait turned out to be even longer than he anticipated, and promised benefits have arrived piecemeal, if at all.

"I did everything I possibly could not to be in this position," said Wight, who conceded it will be a year or more before he can dig himself out of debt.

Backlog is shrinking

Documents and slide presentations, obtained by CBC News, show the National Defence department has thrown at least 50 extra clerks at the buildup.

But the impending relocation of staff this month to the new national headquarters building in Ottawa is expected to slow the processing of severance payments.

Military pensions are now being administered by Public Services and Procurement Canada, which has whittled the backlog of cases down to 5,264, from about 13,000.

Stephen Wight on military retirement

5 years ago
Retired Navy Lieutenant Stephen explains the indignity of waiting months to receive his military pension 0:48

"I understand backlogs and I understand the people who are doing the paperwork are probably doing three jobs. I know, I was there," said Wight.

"Nobody should have to wait three months for money that they have contributed. From the time I started filling out the paperwork, to the time I received my first cheque, it was almost a year. That's unacceptable."

Professionalizing release of members

Since Public Services took over the processing of military pensions, National Defence says 96 per cent of new claims are being turned around within 30 days, according to an email statement.

Internal documents, however, take a wider view and attempt to capture the scope of the problem. Currently, there are approximately 10,000 to 12,000 troops released each year. A 2013 study commissioned for the federal government show nearly one-third of military members (27 per cent) "reported a difficult adjustment."

Gen. Jonathan Vance says his objective is to 'professionalize' the process of releasing military members. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The country's top defence chief acknowledged the growing public complaints in a recent speech, saying his objective is to overhaul and "professionalize" the process of releasing military members.

"We want to make certain — I have the same ambition that anybody else would have: I'd love for your pension cheque to be ready the next day, all of your care in place, everything from your move," Gen. Jonathan Vance told the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. "That is our aspiration and it has improved a great deal even this past year."

The country's military ombudsman is worried that patience has been exhausted and that more ex-soldiers will see the courts as a reasonable recourse instead.

"It's just going to gum the system up with a whole of bunch of litigation," said Walbourne. "It's going to cause more delays and more bureaucracy to come to bear. So I'd rather we didn't find ourselves having to get to that extreme."

Walbourne has been advocating for the military to not release members until all of their financial and health arrangements are in place.

An impersonal process

Vance, in his speech, countered that the system has been trying to do that.

The internal documents say a variety of factors caused the pension and severance backlogs.

Staffing cuts under the former Conservative government, the introduction of pensions for reservists in 2007 and the increasing number of soldiers released on medical grounds — roughly 2,500 per year — have made the system ungainly.

The internal documents acknowledge the system is impersonal and "intended to terminate employment rather than assist the member from military to civilian life."

The role and expectations of well-meaning politicians and military brass have also made things worse, according to one presentation contained in the documents, dated Dec. 16, 2016.

"The many significant personnel initiatives encouraged by senior leadership to look after our people have incrementally complicated the release/transition process to the point where a radical revision was warranted … re-engineering rather than tweaking," the presentation said.