Conservatives try to reconnect with veterans by introducing bill to improve benefits, services

A private members bill intended to bring down wait times for veterans benefits has been introduced by a Conservative MP. In addressing a long-standing complaint of ex-soldiers, the bill represents an attempt to repair some of the political damage of the Harper years.

Proposed bill would make it easier for ex-soldiers to sue government over poor benefit delivery: Tory MP

Conservative MP John Brassard says legislating service standards for veterans would ensure veterans receive their benefits in a timely manner. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A Conservative MP has introduced legislation that would help veterans by bringing down the wait times they experience when trying to access benefits and services. 

John Brassard, who represents the Ontario riding of Barrie-Innisfil, introduced a private member's bill this week that would amend the existing Department of Veterans Affairs Act.

The bill is significant because it deals with one of the longest-standing complaints, of not only ex-soldiers, but also the auditor general who, in successive reports over the years, has criticized the slow delivery of benefits.

Politically, it represents an attempt by the Conservatives to win back what many in the party considered their natural constituency prior to the last election, when the Liberals appeared to win over major blocks of the veterans' vote.

Brassard acknowledged his party's failing and said he spent the summer listening to ex-soldiers and advocates in an effort to make amends.

"The previous government had lost and had become disconnected with the veterans, lost a lot of the trust," Brassard said in an interview. "It is very fair criticism. I'll accept the criticism."

Private members bills rarely see the light of day in the House of Commons, let alone make it all of the way through the process.

Even still, Brassard said his proposed legislation is more than symbolism and represents "a sincere attempt" to reflect the concerns he heard about long waits for benefits.

Benchmarks missed

Only 52 per cent of veterans disability benefits applications are turned around within the 16-week benchmark set by the system, according the 2015-16 federal department performance report.

The 10-week wait for access to long-term care benefits is met in 65 per cent of cases.

Career transition was the worst in terms of service, with just slightly over half the applications processed within the acceptable four-week timeframe.

The department, in each instance, blames "workload demands," new initiatives and staff shortages for the delays.

"As new hiring and training continues, we expect results to improve," said the report.

The Liberals, since being elected, have blamed staff cuts and office closures by the previous Conservative government for the long waits.

Brassard argues that writing the service standards into legislation introduces a new level of accountability and would also be binding on future governments.

"It sets a higher level of expectation," he said. "There's been a generation [of soldiers] that feels that their government hasn't looked after them."

Threat of lawsuits

The bill would also, according to Brassard, open the door for ex-soldiers to sue the government more easily should the standards not be met.

And for that reason, the proposed legislation is "sadly" going nowhere, said veterans advocate Sean Bruyea.

"Holding government to account is a Herculean task and I applaud the bill, but this won't succeed without bureaucratic support," he said.

Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, applauds an effort to legislate service standards at Veterans Affairs. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent also welcomed the effort.

While not commenting on the politics, the ombudsman said complaints about service standards rank among the most often heard at public outreach meetings, including a recent one in Yellowknife, NWT.

Parent said the wait times also impact the families of veterans.


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