Access to health care for veterans' families can be 'disjointed and irregular': government documents

Access to provincial health care for veterans and their families can be “disjointed and irregular” depending upon where they live in the country, say internal federal documents.

News comes following reports that Veterans Affairs has been cutting off therapy for family members

Canadian soldiers carry a flag-draped casket up the ramp of a C-17 transport plane at Kandahar Airfield early Tuesday morning, June 28, 2011. Many families of veterans are reporting being cut off from federally-funded therapy services. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Access to provincial health care for veterans and their families can be "disjointed and irregular" depending upon where they live in the country, say internal federal documents.

The acknowledgement by the Department of Veterans Affairs comes as family members of former soldiers are reporting they've been cut off from taxpayer-funded care by the federal government. 

A series of leaked agendas and slide deck presentations, obtained by CBC News, show the issue of family mental health services has for over a year been on the radar of an advisory group that provides feedback to Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay.

Some of the family members whose counselling is no longer funded by Veterans Affairs have been forced to deal with often overloaded provincial systems.

One of the leaked government documents is a working plan agenda, dated May 2019, that talks about the need for consultations with provinces on "access" for veterans.

Veteran Shane Jones and his daughter Ruth wait with a service dog in a hallway at the IWK Children's Hospital in Halifax in 2019. (Veronica Jones)

Veronica Jones of Eastern Passage, N.S. is one of those now forced to go it alone in the provincial system; her teenage daughter Ruth's federally-funded therapy for anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder was cut off last September.

Jones' family is now on a waiting list; in the meantime, it's paying $600 per month out of pocket for private care to continue with the child's treatment.

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

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

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

A senior department official, speaking before a parliamentary committee last week, denied anyone had been "cut off" from counselling, but acknowledged some may have been refused.

Michel Doiron's answer appears to conflate the two programs — something that infuriates Jones and other family members who say they've been refused federally-funded mental health services.

The internal documents, which were prepared for federal officials, cite meetings in the summer and fall of 2018 with stakeholders groups where concerns about the therapy gaps were raised.

Gaps in services

Department staff were left with the clear understanding from those sessions that they should put more effort into examining "family benefits that are not linked to veterans" care or conditions.

"This may include identifying gaps in services and support to families of veterans," said one of the documents.

Alberta Conservative MP Dane Lloyd, whose motion prompted the House of Commons veterans committee to study the issue, said it's becoming more clear that there are service gaps the government needs to address and confusion within the veterans community.

"There are families who are suffering because their loved ones have PTSD," Lloyd said Tuesday. "We need to ensure there are programs in place to address the collateral damage caused by spouses and children living with someone with PTSD." 

He said the department must act to prevent a repeat of tragedies such as the triple murder suicide involving former Nova Scotia soldier Lionel Desmond.

A spokesman for MacAulay's office said all of the department's mental health services are provided by provincial partners and families can also rely on a network of centres across the country known as Operational Stress Injury (OSI) clinics.

"Not every province offers the same level of mental health services," said department spokesman John Embury. "The Government of Canada is working with provinces and territories, community organizations, mental health experts and other stakeholders to make high quality mental health services more available to Canadians who need them." 

He noted the 2017 federal budget provided $5 billion over 10 years for provinces and territories to improve access to mental health services.