Veterans Affairs taking a harder line on therapy for families of former soldiers, ombudsman says

Veterans Affairs has been quietly tightening access to the mental health services received by families of injured former soldiers, the country's veterans ombudsman said Friday.

Veterans Ombudsman Craig Dalton says the shift in approach caught him off guard

Lt.-Col. Craig Dalton, as chief of staff for Task Force Kandahar, speaks to reporters July 15, 2010 in Kandahar. Dalton, now the veterans ombudsman, says Veterans Affairs has been quietly restricting therapy funding for veterans' family members. (Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press)

Veterans Affairs has been quietly tightening access to the mental health services received by families of injured former soldiers, the country's veterans ombudsman said Friday.

Craig Dalton, who said his office has received a flood of complaints about the policy shift, added the new restrictions were imposed not through a change in policy but more subtly, through a reinterpretation of the existing rules by the bureaucracy.

"The more restrictive interpretation will result in less support for family members," said Dalton, who has been seeking answers from the department after receiving calls from worried family members — some to his direct line. "We've heard from a number of folks over the last 48 hours."

Some families have been told in writing, he said, that their counselling and support services will cease. Others have gotten phone calls from Veterans Affairs staff to explain how things are changing.

Dalton said it all caught him off guard.

"We were aware they were looking at changing the interpretation of the policy. We didn't know exactly what that would be like," he said.

Christopher Garnier was convicted of second-degree murder and indignity to a human body in the 2015 death of Truro, N.S., police officer Catherine Campbell. (CBC)

A half-dozen families who've been told their mental health support was being limited or scaled back have reached out to CBC News, refusing to speak publicly for fear of retribution.

Veterans Affairs' policy of paying for the counselling of family members came under intense fire in the summer of 2018, when it was revealed that a convicted killer was getting taxpayer-funded treatment for the PTSD caused by the murder he committed.

Christopher Garnier had never served in the military, but his father was a member. He was sentenced almost two years ago to life in prison for the second-degree murder in 2015 of an off-duty Nova Scotia police officer, Catherine Campbell.

No policy change, department says

According to the department's policy, last updated in 2010, Veterans Affairs must meet three conditions when paying for family members' counselling: the treatment must be for a short period of time, a veteran must be relying on the family member as a caregiver and the services being funded "must focus on achieving a positive outcome for the veteran, not on treating a family member's own condition."

CBC News asked the department if there had been a change of policy or if the existing guidelines were being more strictly enforced.

Veterans Affairs spokesman Josh Bueckert insisted the policy had not changed but, in an emailed response, did not say whether the department's interpretation of the rules had become more strict.

He did say family members who require long-term support or mental health treatment for their own conditions will be assisted in "locating other resources" by Veterans Affairs staff.

A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay stood behind the department, saying the policy "has remained fundamentally the same" for a decade and the bureaucracy has been told that it must be applied with compassion.

"Minister MacAulay has reminded his officials that the policy is to be applied as flexibly as possible, with the goal of ensuring that our veterans and their families receive the care and support they deserve," said John Embury, the minister's communications director. 

Dalton said both he and and his predecessor, Guy Parent, have argued that the existing policy is too restrictive.

"We've called and recommended for family members to have access to mental health support in their own right," he said.



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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