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The Backlog: Thousands of veterans with disabilities are waiting years for support

OTTAWA — Nearly a dozen years ago, Micheal McNeil was hit with an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The former combat engineer, who is now a 40-year-old father of three in Saint John, N.B.

OTTAWA — Nearly a dozen years ago, Micheal McNeil was hit with an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The former combat engineer, who is now a 40-year-old father of three in Saint John, N.B., has traded a fight with the Taliban for a constant battle with the federal government instead.

“They want you to walk away. They’re literally: delay, deny, watch you die,” he says.

“They want you to walk away from the benefits. They don't want you to get them. And that's why they make it so hard.”

McNeil is one of tens of thousands of Canadian veterans who sustained long-term injuries from their military service and are now waiting to find out whether Veterans Affairs Canada will approve their disability claims.

In McNeil’s case, he has been waiting more than two years to find out whether the seizures he started experiencing in 2018 will be recognized as related to his service in uniform. If so, his family would receive benefits if he dies from the condition.

The disability benefits backlog has emerged over the past five years as a major source of stress, frustration and fear inside Canada’s veterans community.

The government has blamed the backlog on an explosion in the number of claims from injured veterans over the past six years, as more benefits became available and more former service members heard about them.

The influx followed a dramatic reduction in the size of the federal public service starting in 2012 as Stephen Harper’s Conservative government tried to cut spending and balance the books.

Veterans Affairs was particularly hard hit just as Canada's involvement in the war in Afghanistan was winding down. Nearly one in three positions were axed. The Liberals later hired hundreds back, but demand continued to outpace resources.

The Canadian Press was the first to reveal the existence of a backlog in December 2017. At that point, there were 29,000 applications pending with Veterans Affairs Canada. By March 2020, that number had jumped to nearly 49,000 claims.

Veterans Affairs acknowledges the existence of a backlog, but says the actual size is much smaller. It only counts the total number of complete applications that have been officially assigned to a staff member and been left unresolved longer than 16 weeks. Most experts and advocates say such a breakdown misstates the real extent of the problem.

Veterans whose applications are approved are entitled to different benefits and support depending on their condition, including financial compensation for long-term injuries, income replacement for those unable to work, job training and medical treatment.

Ray McInnis is the director of Veterans' Services at the Royal Canadian Legion, which helps veterans with the often complex process of applying for disability benefits. That includes helping obtain medical documents and filling out and submitting various forms.

“When we submit a disability application, our main focus is to get entitlements so that they can get treatment,” McInnis says. “The treatment is the most important part.”

Amy Green has been waiting since September 2019 to hear whether Veterans Affairs will approve her claim for a traumatic brain injury, which she says was sustained after an Afghan civilian intentionally crashed his motorcycle into her G-Wagon in Kabul in 2004.

Now living in London, Ont., Green has struggled with post-military life after being released from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2014. She says she hit bottom in 2019 after she hit and kicked police officers following a car crash that triggered “a huge spiral downwards.”

“I thought I was in an explosion in Afghanistan, but I’d actually caught my car on fire,” she says. “So I went to a treatment facility and just started getting my life back on track.”

Veterans Affairs currently pays for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes counselling. But Green says approval for a traumatic brain injury, which is a physical wound, would give her access to different treatment.

“The difficult part is everything’s in limbo,” she says. “Everything that I would like to do.”

Many veterans support groups and organizations have stepped up to fill the gap by offering treatment to injured ex-soldiers whether they are getting support from Veterans Affairs or not.

But that shifts the financial burden from the government to organizations such as the Vancouver-based Veterans Transition Network, which relies on fundraising to make ends meet.

“It costs us a lot of money every single year, but we do it because that's the position that the organization takes,” says Oliver Thorne, the group's operations director. “Our mission is to make the program as accessible as possible.”

The backlog is also believed to have discouraged many veterans from submitting claims, even though a successful application opens the door to extensive support and benefits.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay has described the backlog as “unacceptable” and committed $192 million in June 2020 to hire 540 temporary staff to help clear it.

The number of outstanding claims has fallen since the 49,000 peak recorded last March and stood at just over 40,000 as of June. But there are concerns the progress will be fleeting.

The number of new claims plummeted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic as many veterans were unable to get the medical records needed to apply. There could be a flood of new claims after funding for the temporary staff expires in March.

Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux warned the government about exactly that scenario in September 2020. Internal documents obtained through the Access to Information Act show Veterans Affairs officials agreed with that assessment in May.

“There is a possibility that the department could see an influx of applications once the country begins moving into a normal state,” reads an internal report. “We need to realize significant efficiencies to start to offset the reduction in resources and increased intake.”

The department has since said it has approval to extend some of the temporary staff past March, but did not say how many.

"Currently, various factors are being considered with regards to staff retention," Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre said in an email.

The government has faced calls for changes beyond hiring more staff. One is to expand the list of common conditions afflicting Canadian veterans that are automatically approved to make sure former service members get the support they need.

Brian Forbes is executive director of the War Amps and national director of the National Council of Veterans Associations, an umbrella group for 60 veterans organizations, and has been seeking such a change for years.

“The thing that is quite irritating is that post-traumatic stress claims are approved around 96 per cent of the time,” he says. “Why don’t we just recognize that this case is going to be approved and let’s give them the treatment benefits?”

Forbes isn’t the only one calling for such an approach; a House of Commons committee recommended MacAulay amend existing legislation to allow for the pre-approval of claims so veterans can get faster support.

MacAulay told the committee that Ottawa was looking at the Australian and American experiences with pre- and automatic approval to see what lessons can be learned, but otherwise stood by the current process.

Some veterans like McNeil believe Ottawa doesn’t want to fix the problem. He says he thinks the federal government has put up barriers to keep from having to shell out money to those who got injured while in uniform. That has brought anger and a sense of betrayal.

“I have more PTSD from fighting the government in the last 3,000 to 4,000 days than I do from Afghanistan,” he says. “Because it's so goddamn traumatic.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Ray McInnis was the director of the Royal Canadian Legion’s service bureau. He is, in fact, director of Veterans' Services.