OTTAWA — More Canadian veterans than ever are waiting to find out whether they qualify for disability benefits, despite repeated government promises and efforts to get the situation under control.

New figures from Veterans Affairs Canada show more than 44,000 applications from veterans for assistance were sitting in the queue at the end of September, a 10 per cent increase from only six months earlier.

The number includes both completed applications and those deemed “incomplete,” which Veterans Affairs broke out first the first time after years of criticism for the ever-increasing number of files waiting for a decision.

Incomplete applications are those that need more information from applicants or are waiting for staff to review.

Yet even setting those aside, the number of completed applications that have been sitting in the queue for months stood at more than 23,000, an increase of 6,300 — or 37 per cent — from March 2019.

Veterans’ advocates say long delays add stress and frustration to veterans already suffering from physical and psychological injuries.

They also sparked promises during the fall election from many of the federal parties, who were keen on winning veterans’ votes.

Veterans and their advocates have previously blamed Stephen Harper’s Conservative government for the current situation, after the Tories cut hundreds of front-line staff about eight years ago in their fervent drive to balance the federal budget.

The Liberal government has since hired back hundreds of front-line staff and made a one-time, $20-million cash injection over two years in the 2018 federal budget to address the backlog. (Another $22 million was added to hire more caseworkers for the most severely injured veterans.)

But those investments have not kept pace with growth in demand for services and benefits over the past four years.

The fact of the matter is veterans deserve to receive their benefits in a timely manner and the backlog is not acceptable,” Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Yet he would not say whether more money will be forthcoming, despite Veterans Affairs officials indicating that their plan for eliminating the backlog depends on getting more money for staff.

“Of course I always want more money,” MacAulay said. “But what we have to do is deal with the money that we have and make sure we put the system together as efficiently as possible. … I certainly couldn’t indicate what we asked for — or what we’re going to get — in the budget.”

The streamlining efforts include creating new teams to handle applications in one shot rather than sending them to different parts of the department, automating some decision-making functions and cutting down on paperwork.

The Liberal government has long blamed a massive increase in the number of applications for benefits for the growing backlog, and MacAulay noted Veterans Affairs is processing more applications than in years past, “but we have to do more. And that’s what we’re doing.”

In his annual report, tabled in the House of Commons last week, veterans ombudsman Craig Dalton wrote that the backlog and wait times are the most frequent complaint his office receives from former military personnel.

“Quite simply, this needs to change,” Dalton wrote. “Veterans wait far too long for the financial compensation they are due and, perhaps most importantly, the medical treatment they require. I urge government to take the necessary steps to address this significant and growing problem.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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