Veterans funding not as advertised, opposition MPs say

A $200-million fund to improve mental health care for veterans will actually be spread out over 50 years, and not the six years originally promised by the Conservatives, opposition MPs said Friday.

Conservatives pledged $200M over six years, but will actually take 50 years to spend it all

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with members of Soldier-On during a National Day of Honour last May in Ottawa. A $200-million fund to improve mental health care for veterans will be spread out over 50 years, and not the six years originally promised by the Conservatives, opposition MPs say. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A $200-million fund to improve mental health care for veterans will actually be spread out over 50 years, and not the six years originally promised by the Conservatives, opposition MPs said Friday.

The NDP and Liberals zeroed in on a report Friday morning that the money announced to help veterans deal with operational stress injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder won't be as targeted as the government first said.

"Conservatives misled the House, they misled the public and misled veterans," said NDP deputy leader Libby Davies.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and Defence Minister Rob Nicholson last Sunday said the government would provide approximately $200 million, plus an additional $16.7 million every year after that to set up new operational stress injury clinics and support established mental health programs.

It was followed by a Monday press conference announcing additional money for veterans' mental health care, which came a day before a devastating report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson that highlighted how long it takes for a veteran to be approved for mental health care.

Ferguson found it takes eight months from when a veteran first starts filling in an application form to be approved for care under the Veterans Affairs disability benefits program. For some, it takes up to several years.

Confusion abounds

A background document about the announcement, given to the Royal Canadian Legion, said $50 million would be provided immediately for mental health initiatives for veterans, Canadian Armed Forces members and their families.

But another background document released to the media says there will be "an immediate investment of $19.1 million" out of a total $159.2 million for a new operational stress injury clinic, with the remaining money given out over the life of the program. The life of the program isn't specified, but the Globe and Mail reported that it's expected to be 50 years.

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed confused about the amount of the funding.

Asked Monday about the $200 million in funding, Harper said, "Actually I think the announcement was significantly larger than that. I think it was about a billion dollars."

In an interview with CBC News, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole said he prefers to talk about whether the government is meeting the needs of veterans instead of the dollar figures.

But he suggested the announcement could have been better communicated in the news release and background documents supplied to journalists and stakeholders.

"I think we need to tighten up the language to explain exactly how the government spends its money. But this is actually how the auditor general, several auditors general, have said we have to announce money," said O'Toole, who served in the military.

Fantino in Italy

The issue dominated question period Friday.

"We know the government is ashamed of this paltry $200 million over 50 years attempt to mislead the veterans. Why else would the website announcing the program have disappeared from the internet?" Liberal MP John McCallum said.

Parm Gill, parliamentary secretary to the minister of veterans affairs, said the money will go to eight new clinics, bringing the total number to 25.

"We're obviously putting more operational stress injury clinics right across this country, Mr. Speaker. More health-care professionals, Mr. Speaker. More places for veterans and still-serving members to get help, Mr. Speaker. We're expanding the treatments right across this country," he said.

Gill didn't say how much money the government would spend, even though he answered questions about the funding multiple times. He told reporters on the way into the House that they'd have to ask the experts about the specific dollar amount.

The opposition MPs pointed out Fantino hasn't been in the House this week. Fantino left for Italy the day the auditor general's report was released.

He's in Italy to mark the 70th anniversary of the Italian campaign, in which nearly 6,000 Canadians died during the Second World War. A news release sent a few days before the report was released, however, had indicated he wouldn't be on the trip to Italy.


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