Military ombudsman rips dizzying delay in ex-soldier benefits

The country's military ombudsman says he's hoping the Liberal government will stop discharging wounded soldiers before their benefits are arranged.

Report attacks 'unnecessarily complex' system, recommends 'concierge' service like U.S., Australia

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne is shown at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4. Over half of the 2,000 complaints investigated annually by the Canadian Forces ombudsman have an "end of career" context, he says. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's military ombudsman is calling on the Liberal government to line up veterans benefits and services for every injured soldier before they are given a medical discharge.

In a new report released Tuesday, Gary Walbourne argues that the current system — which attempts to build a bridge between National Defence and Veterans Affairs administration — is broken.

Getting all of the paperwork set up before a soldier hits the civilian street is, in the ombudsman's estimation, a common-sense idea. But Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan seemed cool to the notion when questioned by reporters Tuesday.

Soldiers heading into the civilian world face a dizzying, multi-layered bureaucracy that is slow to deliver benefits, and, in some cases, has denied them compensation for the injuries that have ended their careers in uniform.   

"The transition process is unnecessarily complex and difficult to navigate — especially for those who are ill or injured," said Walbourne's report, an advance copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

What makes it worse and even more frustrating, he says, is that some soldiers are making the move while suffering from physical or mental wounds.   

I've talked to members who are couch-surfing and don't know where they're going to spend the night. Those are pretty heart-wrenching stories we can avoid.- Gary Walbourne, Canadian Forces Ombudsman

"The current process requires members to re-tell their stories to many different people in three distinct organizations — thereby taking away from the energy required for medically releasing members to get well and move forward with their new lives outside of the Canadian Armed Forces."

But Sajjan, in a written response, says Veteran Affairs is "well-established and has the resources to fulfil this task" and that improvements are already underway.

He says he doesn't want to make any changes in a "knee-jerk" or "piecemeal fashion."

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says he's been working with National Defence to reduce complexity and overhaul service delivery.

"This means harmonized services, clear guidance, timely access to benefits and services, and co-ordinated case management between both departments during transition," Hehr said in a statement.

Benefits delayed

The wounded have three years to recover from their injuries and return to normal duty under the existing system. If they are unable to do so, the Department of National Defence begins the release process, which could take additional time, possibly up to several months.

But ex-soldiers are prohibited in some cases from applying for veterans benefits until they are out of uniform — a delay that several government watchdogs, including Walbourne, have noted can tack on another six months or more.

Almost 53 per cent of the 2,000 complaints investigated annually by the Canadian Forces ombudsman involve so-called "end of career issues," Walbourne said in an interview with CBC News.

He has investigated cases of soldiers without any money shuttling between friends until their benefits come through. Others have been in danger of losing their homes because they can't pay their mortgage.

"We need to ensure that the financial plans are in place so the member has continuity," said Walbourne, who, prior to being the military's watchdog, served as the deputy veterans ombudsman. "At the end of the day, you have to put bread on the table. I've talked to members who are couch-surfing and don't know where they're going to spend the night. Those are pretty heart-wrenching stories we can avoid."

The report also recommends the defence department follow the lead of the U.S. and Australia and establish a so-called concierge service, which would guide ex-soldiers out the door.

Walbourne also insists on the creation of a secure web portal, bringing together all of the benefits information for the military, Veterans Affairs and the Service Income Security Insurance Plan programs.

It would be a one-stop resource guide, he says.

Liberals mulling over ideas

Sajjan says "there is great merit in the idea of a concierge service" and National Defence is actively exploring the idea with Veteran Affairs.

Walbourne has made the issue of transition a key priority.

Two weeks ago, he released a report that insisted National Defence — not Veterans Affairs — should be the one to define whether a soldier's injury took place in the line of duty.

Walbourne was, in that separate analysis, addressing one of the biggest grievances related to the wait time for benefits. Acting on it would also eliminate an entire bureaucratic wing at Veterans Affairs.

A number of experts who've testified before various House of Commons committees in the last few years have said the key to tackling a number of social ills faced by ex-soldiers — from suicides to homelessness — is to ensure that their transition from military to civilian life goes smoothly.

If the government adopts the recommendations in both of his reports, it would potentially cut his caseload in half.

"Wouldn't that be wonderful," he said. "They're logical. It's hard to argue with logic."