Backlog of applications for veterans benefits still greater than 11,500

Veterans Affairs faces a backlog of thousands of first-time benefits applications, according to new figures released to CBC News. And new documents reveal that, behind the scenes, officials have struggled to bring the situation under control.

Veterans Affairs benefits logjam 'makes my argument' for reform, says military ombudsman

Veterans Affairs bureaucrats have made only marginal progress in reducing a backlog of new disability claims by medically discharged veterans. (Reuters)

Veterans Affairs is struggling to tame an enormous stockpile of disability benefits claims — approximately 11,544 — from ex-soldiers who are just entering the system, CBC News has learned.

Bureaucrats flagged the growing problem to the former Conservative government just over a year ago. Documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act show there were 16,000 applications in July 2015.

Veterans Affairs officials committed at the time to eliminating 5,505 of those claims — which were formally deemed as "backlogged" in the system — by April 2017.

They intended to do it with the addition of more nurse adjudicators and other staff.

However, as of mid-September, the backlog of priority cases had only been whittled down to 3,476, the department acknowledged in an email response to questions posed by CBC News.

The delay in dealing with applications is the source of long-simmering anger among ex-soldiers, who often have to wait until they are out of uniform before applying to Veterans Affairs for benefits.

Navigating the system can take six months — or more.

Military doctors are the first ones to determine whether an injured soldier can continue to serve — but once a soldier is released, Veterans Affairs weighs in with its own separate medical opinion. 

And occasionally ex-soldiers are denied claims for injuries that have ended their military careers.

'Broken' system

The new figures exemplify complaints of Canada's military ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, who last month issued a series of critical reports aimed at what he describes as a "broken" transition system.

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne has called the transition to post-military benefits 'unnecessarily complex and difficult to navigate.' (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Walbourne recommended a series of fixes, which include making the military, not Veterans Affairs, responsible for deciding whether an injury was sustained in the line of duty, and not releasing a soldier until all of their benefits are arranged.

The Liberal government, which courted the veteran vote in the last election, has been cool to the recommendations, saying the Defence and Veterans Affairs departments are already working to "close the seam" in bureaucratic processes started under the former Conservative government.

"These are men and women injured in the service of their country. They deserve better. They were promised better," NDP veterans critic Irene Mathyssen said Monday during question period in the House of Commons.

The solution they have been working on involves embedding Veterans Affairs staff at National Defence to begin the benefits paperwork earlier.

The department says it has implemented a streamlined process to deal with applications, but last year it received 22 per cent more claims than in 2014-15 budget year. Officials say, at the same time they managed to speed up the processing, moving 27 per cent more applications thanks to the addition of new staff.

An internal briefing for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, prepared when he assumed the portfolio last year, made passing reference to the backlog, noting that Veterans Affairs had made progress in reducing adjudication time from "71 to 21 days."

Sajjan, questioned about Walbourne's reports last week, said he isn't interested in "knee-jerk reaction decisions."

He stood by the existing system, saying proper solutions need time.

"So I'm not going to put a timeline onto it," Sajjan told reporters. "I just want to make sure that we do this right and have a good package that's going to look after our veterans, but one that can evolve into the future as well."

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr acknowledged Monday the government are still struggling with the issue.

"Delivering timely benefits is an area where we can and must do better," he said.

Mandatory overtime

But Walbourne said the new data obtained by CBC News simply reinforces his arguments.

"We need to change the service delivery model," he said. "Let's focus the resources on what's important to the member."

Barry Westholm, a former senior non-commissioned officer with the joint support units that are meant to guide soldiers out of uniform, says the military often does not prepare someone for release until they're injured.

"And then everything is crammed at them, and sometimes a person leaves the Canadian Armed Forces dizzy with piles and piles of paper," Westholm said in an interview.

It's not the first time a government watchdog has criticized backlogs involving veterans.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson, in a highly scathing report almost two years ago, slammed the eight-month wait ex-soldiers had to endure to simply find out whether Veterans Affairs would cover their mental health claims.

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent weighed in on Monday, telling a House of Commons committee that "turn-around times" is the biggest complaint he's been getting.

"We hear that even after a decision is made, it can take weeks for veterans to receive their benefits," Parent said.

Department officials, in an Aug. 26, 2015, briefing, wrote that in order to clear up the overall backlog of the applications they would need to hire an additional 68 nurse adjudicators, who initially assess the claims, and another 38 support staff.

I think it's patently cruel to force veterans to have to prove over and over again to Veterans Affairs medical doctors something they have proven to Canadian Forces medical doctors- Sean Bruyea, veterans' advocate

That request was on top the 18 nurse adjudicators hired shortly after Ferguson's report.

All of the new hires were expected to do "mandatory overtime, with extension of overtime beyond normal hours," the briefing said.

Bureaucrats defended their inability to eliminate the backlog by saying their initial plan and targets had been "too ambitious."

They also had not been anticipating the number of complex cases, where soldiers had multiple issues and injuries.

Officials also complained that in some cases staff resisted new procedures.

"Some staff and union representatives have voiced concerns with regard to potential job losses as a result of efficiency to be gained by the new models," said the briefing.

Trust military doctors: Advocate

The nurse adjudicators were also uncomfortable declaring whether a soldier's injury took place in the line of duty.

That aspect, known as attribution of service, is something Walbourne addressed in a report two weeks ago, when he wrote: "Common sense suggests that [the military] is best placed to know whether a member's physical or mental health condition is caused or aggravated by their military service."

Veterans' advocate Sean Bruyea says it is 'patently cruel' to force veterans to prove 'over and over again' that a disability was the result of military service. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A longtime veterans' advocate, Sean Bruyea, says it's outrageous that Veterans Affairs is forcing nurse adjudicators to make those kinds of calls when they don't feel qualified.

He says there wouldn't be a backlog if the Liberal government adopted the ombudsman's recommendations. 

"I think it's patently cruel to force veterans to have to prove over and over again to Veterans Affairs medical doctors something they have proven to Canadian Forces medical doctors," he said.

"Canadian Forces medical doctors know exactly the context of that injury and they should be trusted in that judgment."


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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