Veterans Affairs could clear application backlog in a year if it hired hundreds: PBO

OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs Canada can clear its backlog of disability benefit applications in a year if it hires nearly 400 more people, says the parliamentary budget office.

The number of pending applications for benefits had reached almost 50,000 by the end of March, up from about 21,000 three years earlier. More than 22,000 of the applications were considered complete and were waiting only for decisions by the department.

In June, Veterans Affairs said it would extend contracts for 160 employees it had hired temporarily to process applications, and would add another 300 to their number.

The PBO says all these extra people will only reduce the backlog by about 10,000 applications by March 2022, but hiring an additional 392 employees, for a total of 852, would end it in 12 months.

The cost of the additional hires would be about $126 million from now until the end of fiscal year 2024–25, according to the PBO.

Cameron McNeill, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, said the department is aware that too many veterans are waiting too long for decisions on their applications. 

"We can and must do better," McNeill said in a statement Monday.

But the PBO report does not take into account other steps thew department is taking to make the process faster and more efficient, said McNeill.

Amy Meunier, the director general for the centralized operations division at Veterans Affairs Canada said they are increasing the number of people processing the applications and also simplifying the process to to avoid another backlog down the road.

Meunier said the department is planning more digitization and streamlining, to speed up exchanges of information.

She said the department is also looking at partnering with the Canadian Armed Forces to access veterans' health records in order to determine more easily whether an injury was related to service or not.

Since 2015, the number of disability benefit applications has increased by more than 60 per cent including an increase of more than 90 per cent in first-time applications.

The department says that's due to new programs, the increasing awareness about services and benefits and the growing demand for mental health services.

NDP Veterans Affairs critic Rachel Blaney said in a statement Monday that veterans are not getting the support they need.

The PBO report was prepared after a request from Blaney regarding the service standards for processing the applications.

“This is completely unacceptable," she said. "Veterans have already been waiting too long for the benefits and services they deserve."

Blaney said the issue started during the Harper Conservative government when the minister of veterans affairs at the time — Erin O’Toole, now the leader of the Conservative party — caused the crisis by making deep cuts.

She said the Liberals have provided temporary increases in resources for Veterans Affairs but not enough to keep up with need.

The Liberal government announced their plans to hire hundreds more temporary staff as part of a broader plan to tackle the growing backlog of requests for support and benefits from disabled veterans, many of whom are being forced to wait years for an answer.

The backlog has emerged as a major source of frustration and anger for the Canadian veterans' community, with advocates repeatedly warning that delays in processing applications add undue stress on injured ex-soldiers and exacerbate already difficult financial and medical conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veterans Affairs planned to have the first group of 160 new staff working by last January, and hoped to have the backlog dramatically reduced by March 2022.

But the budget office says the government's efforts to get the backlog under control by adding 300 more staff, at a cost of $87.7 million, are still not enough to fix the problem quickly.

The PBO report projects that with the 460 workers, it will take Veterans Affairs until the first quarter of 2023 to eliminate the backlog. It can maintain its service standards if it keeps most of the additional employees beyond 2021–22, according to the PBO.

The cost associated with that scenario is $103 million over five years, $23 million less than the cost of hiring another 392 people to get through the backlog faster.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press