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Veterans Affairs poised to lose hundreds of staff hired to deal with claims backlog

OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs Canada says the Liberal government has agreed to extend the contracts of only about one-third of the temporary staff hired to deal with a backlog of disability claims from ill and injured ex-soldiers.

OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs Canada says the Liberal government has agreed to extend the contracts of only about one-third of the temporary staff hired to deal with a backlog of disability claims from ill and injured ex-soldiers.

That is despite the fact the department still has nearly 34,000 unprocessed applications on its desk — a number that officials warn will only grow by the thousands if more temporary workers aren’t retained past the end of their current contracts in March.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay last week told a parliamentary committee that the government has left the door open to extending the contracts of more temporary staff to keep a lid on the backlog.

Yet while Veterans Affairs officials were quietly pushing the Liberals for approval to start extending contracts last spring, MacAulay said any new investment will have to wait until the next federal budget is released in the spring.

Officials warned the minister last May that the department had already lost some of the 560 temporary staff hired to deal with the backlog, and an early decision on extending contracts would help ensure more didn’t leave for other jobs.

“I cannot indicate what would be in the budget, because it's not appropriate,” MacAulay said during his appearance before the House of Commons veterans’ affairs committee.

“But the fact is I've indicated quite clearly that we will be seeking additional funding to make sure that we continue on the same track that we're on to reduce the backlog.”

The backlog has emerged as one of the main sources of frustration, anger and hardship for Canada’s veterans’ community, with those ill and injured forced to wait months — and often years — for access to financial or medical support for their injuries.

The Canadian Press, which was the first to report the existence of the backlog in 2017, detailed in a series last year the additional stress and difficulties that veterans stuck in the backlog are experiencing as they wait for their claims to be processed.

The Liberal government made what was supposed to be a one-time, $20-million cash injection in 2018 to hire dozens of temporary staff to speed up the processing of disability benefit applications and ensure veterans had timely access to benefits and services.

Yet that investment didn’t make a dent as the number of applications coming in continued to surpass the department’s resources, and the backlog grew from 29,000 applications in December 2017 to 49,000 in March 2020.

It was only after the Liberals added another $192 million in June 2020 to keep the temporary staff hired in 2018 and add hundreds of others to the mix — for a total of 560 extra employees — that it has started to report some improvements. 

MacAulay’s spokesman Cameron McNeill reported last week there were nearly 34,000 unprocessed claims from more than 25,000 veterans with the department at the end of December, about 15,000 fewer claims than at its peak.

Yet while MacAulay touted that as progress, Veterans Affairs admitted in response to a recent question from Conservative critic Frank Caputo that the average veteran is still having to wait over 40 weeks for their claim to be processed.

And Veterans Affairs officials say even what the government describes as progress is in danger of being reversed as only 168 of the 560 temporary staff have so far had their contracts extended past the end of March.

Figures provided to Caputo show officials estimate the number of unprocessed files will fall to about 26,600 by the end of March, but will rise back up to 36,500 by the end of the year unless the Liberal government approves more staff.

“If we are given more resources, that will certainly address those numbers and will allow us to bring that backlog down,” Veterans Affairs deputy minister Paul Ledwell told committee members this week. 

However, he added, “we don't have the confirmation of resources yet. And that will only come through the budgeting process.”  

That means the department won’t know until mid-March at the earliest how many more of the temporary staff will be kept. That is despite the Liberals having been repeatedly warned for more than a year that those employees will be needed.

Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux in September 2020 reported the government would need to keep most of those temporary staff past their current contract set to end in March 2022 for another three years to properly deal with the backlog.

Giroux also said the government could have eliminated the entire backlog by the end of 2021 by hiring 400 additional employees on top of those already under contract by adding $159 million to the budget. The Liberals ignored this recommendation.

Veterans Affairs warned MacAulay about the continued need for additional staff last May, noting in documents obtained through access to information the temporary staff only really got up and running in January 2021 after months of recruitment and training.

Those officials not only spoke of the importance of retaining their temporary staff, but also for the government to make a decision on such an extension sooner rather than later.

“With delays in extending spike staff comes the higher risk of losing these highly skilled and trained employees,” reads the report. “To date, we have lost 38 employees with 27 being essential decision makers.”

MacAulay during his committee appearance acknowledged: “You just don't walk into Veterans Affairs and become a case loader. There's work to be done in order to make sure they're ready to serve veterans and Veterans Affairs Canada.”

NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney in an interview said thousands of veterans are waiting while the government dithers — and it could have eliminated the backlog by now if it just put its money where its mouth is.

“The PBO said: ‘Look, if you do this and then you do this, you could be caught up completely within a year,’” she said.

“I believe our veterans deserve that. And it's absolutely appalling that people who served our country, who are dealing with in some cases some severe trauma, are having to deal with this (backlog).”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press