November 11 - Hundreds of people gathered at the Trail Cenotaph to honour Canada’s veterans and lives lost in the line of duty. Sheri Regnier photo

Critics urge Ottawa to clear backlog of disabled veterans

Some fear money from this year’s federal budget won’t be enough to help Veterans Affairs Canada

A promised infusion of cash to help Veterans Affairs Canada address a massive backlog of requests for services from thousands of wounded warriors has sparked mixed reactions — with some fearing it won’t be nearly enough.

The new money, included in this week’s federal budget, amounts to $42 million over two years and is specifically earmarked to speed up the delivery of services to disabled veterans.

RELATED: Liberals champion their values in 2018 budget aimed at long-term vision

The one-time injection of additional funds follows revelations that Veterans Affairs Canada had a backlog of 29,000 applications for disability benefits at the end of November — a nearly 50 per cent increase over the previous eight months.

Nearly one-third of those applications had been in the queue for more than 16 weeks, which was also an increase since the spring and the latest in a long line of indications that wait times for services have continued to grow.

The government says the new funds will be used to hire a yet-to-be-determined number of extra staff at Veterans Affairs, which reports having seen a 60 per cent increase in the number of requests for disability benefits in the past three years.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan said he has heard first-hand from former Forces members about the impacts the growing wait times have had on their lives, and that the government knows it has to do better.

“We just did five town halls in two days in New Brunswick, and that’s when you see the face of backlog,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

“You have a veteran at a microphone who’s waited Lord knows how many months, and what do you do? You just stand there and go: ‘We’re trying.’ And that’s not good enough.”

But the union representing Veterans Affairs workers says that while the money will certainly help fix some of the problems facing the department, more will be needed to undo years of Conservative-era cuts — and to address future demand.

“The reality is that we were in a hole, and we’re still in a hole right now,” said Carl Gannon, national director of the Union of Veterans Employees.

“And to repair what needs to be repaired, it’s going to take some money. It’s not going to take one-time money. It’s going to take sustained money over a very long period of time to stabilize the department. So is it enough? No, I don’t think it’s enough.”

RELATED: Canadian veterans fight to reinstate lifelong pensions

NDP veterans affairs critic Gord Johns said he has pressed the government on how it came up with the $42-million figure and why the funds are only earmarked for two years, but that it hasn’t offered any answers.

“When it’s only for two years, they’re not talking about replacing staff on a permanent basis,” Johns said. “And the government needs to show an ongoing commitment to veterans with long-term funding and long-term stable resources and services.”

Veterans Affairs was forced to lay off 1,000 employees — about a quarter of its staff — between 2012 and 2014 when the Harper government slashed government spending to balance the budget in advance of the last federal election.

About half that number have since been hired back, Gannon said, but many more are needed to address what has been a steady growth in demand for services and to implement the Liberals’ new pension-for-life for disabled veterans.

While the government has said it has set aside separate money to specifically prepare for the pension-for-life measures, which is scheduled to come into effect next year, Gannon was nonetheless worried that it will exacerbate the existing problems.

“It’s going to stress a system that’s already stressed to the max,” he said of the pension-for-life plan. “So right now, it’s imperative that we repair the system before we start really trying to roll out anything.”

O’Regan left the door open to adding more funds in the future as he acknowledged that the government has to stay ahead of demand for services, which will soon include offering disabled veterans what the Liberals are calling a pension for life.

“If we don’t keep up with it, we’re not going to be getting better at this,” he said. “We are improving front-line services, but we have to keep ahead of it.”

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Lightning strikes West Kelowna condo

Fire crews were called to a building on Carrington Road Tuesday night

UPDATE: Smoke rising from Okanagan Mountain Park hills

Lightning may have sparked a fire in the hills across from Peachland

Lightning strikes across B.C. Interior

Residents are being asked to go inside until last rumble of thunder

Update: Lightning sparks blaze above Summerland

Firefighters are battling the small fire from the area that occurred Tuesday shortly after 7 p.m.

UPDATE: Crews battle wildfire near Big White Road

Joe Rich Fire Department responding alongside Big White Fire Department and provincial crews.

Trudeau asks transport minister to tackle Greyhound’s western pullout

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s asked Transport Minister Marc Garneau to find solutions in Greyhound Canada’s absence.

Lightning sparks wildfires in Vernon

Tuesday night storm causes wildfire in BX and residential fire in East Hill

Crash closes Highway 5A in both directions

A collision has shut down Highway 5A about 22 kilometres south of the junction with Highway 97C

Hub for mental health and addictions treatment opens at B.C. hospital

St. Paul’s Hospital HUB is an acute medical unit that includes 10 patient beds

Pike Mountain fire continues to grow – quadruples in 24 hours

Fire threatens area consumed in 2017 by a 3,500 hectare blaze

Vernon Knights hire Van Horlick

New head coach of Junior B franchise in Armstrong

St. Albert knocks down Canadians

Finals of Valley of the Champions

Restaurant Brands International to review policy over poaching employees

One of Canada’s largest fast-food company to review ‘no-poach’ franchise agreements

Calgary family’s vacation ends in tragedy on Texas highway

Three people died and four others were injured in the crash

Most Read