Veterans Affairs needs a cash injection to eliminate application backlog, says budget watchdog
The department hired more people — the PBO says it may have to keep them longer
If the federal government is going to make headway on a massive backlog of unprocessed veterans benefits claims, it's going to need more people and a lot more money, Canada's Parliamentary Budget Office said today.
The PBO released a report that predicts measures announced by federal officials last June to tackle the enormous number of overdue applications will not deliver the results the federal government hoped to achieve.
At the end of March this year, there were 49,216 benefits requests in the system. That figure had been whittled down to about 46,000 three months later, when Veterans Affairs Canada announced its plan in a teleconference with reporters.
More than half of those unprocessed claims were overdue — meaning claimants had been kept waiting months beyond the department's own deadline — when Veterans Affairs said it was going to hire 300 additional staff on a temporary basis to eliminate the backlog by 2023.
The PBO said Monday it believes the department's push to wipe out the backlog can only work if the newly-hired staff are kept on for years.
"Our projections show that, with these additional resources, the department will reduce the backlog by about 10,000 applications by March 2022," said the PBO report, posted online.
"However, we estimate that, to fully eliminate the backlog and then maintain the service standards going forward, it would mean retaining most of these additional employees beyond 2021–22. With this extension, we project that the backlog would be eliminated in the first quarter of 2023."
That "extension" would cost about $103 million between now and the end of 2024–25 budget year.
More people, more money
The PBO report also suggested an alternative: the federal government could hire 392 more people in addition to the 300 hired already, which would allow it to solve the problem in a year.
That option would cost the federal treasury almost $159 million over the next five years.
A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said the budget office did not look at the whole picture when it compiled its assessment.
"We know that too many veterans are waiting too long for decisions on their applications and that we can and must do better," said Cameron McNeill in an email statement.
"While the PBO's report shows that new hires made as part of our recent investment of nearly $200 [million] will make a significant impact on the backlog, it does not take into account the many steps that Veterans Affairs is taking to make the process faster and more efficient. We're confident in the plan we put forward to tackle the backlog, and we will continue to do everything we can to address it."
Because of overhauls by two different governments, veterans have seen their system of benefits changed several times — leaving behind a patchwork that has been criticized by government watchdogs and veterans themselves.
The PBO report was compiled at the request of New Democrat veterans critic Rachel Blaney and comes as the federal government faces court challenges by former soldiers affected by the backlog and the overlapping systems.
"The report clearly shows that, even if the temporary band-aid increases in resources for Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) the Liberals have announced were extended, veterans would still be waiting until 2023 for the backlog in applications to be cleared," Blaney said in a media statement.
"This is completely unacceptable. Veterans have already been waiting too long for the benefits and services they deserve."
Blaney laid the initial blame for the backlog at the feet of the former Conservative government and the party's new leader, Erin O'Toole, who was veterans minister just prior to the 2015 federal election.
She said Conservative cuts to staffing at Veterans Affairs created a snowball effect that the Liberals have only made worse.
Senior Veterans Affairs officials, testifying before parliamentary committees last year, presented a more nuanced picture, saying the rising number of claims was prompted by repeated overhauls to the system and more awareness of programs.