Federal help to cover veterans’ funeral costs not reaching some families: audit

OTTAWA — The families of some recently deceased veterans may not be getting the help paying for funerals that they deserve, an internal government audit has found, prompting a renewed commitment to outreach by the federal government.

The Veterans Affairs audit was looking at a program that helps pay the costs of burying veterans who died because of their military service or whose survivors can’t afford a proper funeral.

Since 2013, the government has helped pay for around 1,200 such funerals each year at a cost of around $7 million.

But the audit said many more veterans may have been eligible, as the estates of only a fraction of the roughly 21,000 veterans who die each year were assessed to determine whether they qualified.

“Although the overall intake to the program has remained relatively consistent over the past four years,” the audit report said, “there is a risk that the program is not fully reaching veterans.”

One specific area of concern was the 3,000 veterans receiving disability benefits who died each year, but whose families were never contacted about whether they were eligible for financial help with the funeral.

The audit also raised concerns that veterans who were homeless or poor were more at risk of being overlooked than others, despite the fact the survivors of such people were more likely to need assistance.

Officials were also less likely to look at the files of veterans who were single or widowed when they died, which meant, among other things, “that the estates of female veterans are negatively impacted.”

The number of cases assessed, meanwhile, has steadily decreased from more than 3,100 in 2011-12 to 2,200 to 2015-16, though the audit did not cite a reason.

In response to the audit, Veterans Affairs, which has long struggled with complaints from veterans about difficulties obtaining support and services, said it is following up with vets to ensure nobody is missed.

Department spokesman Nick Wells said in an email that the measures include a monthly report on veterans who have been identified as homeless or at risk of homelessness, or receive financial assistance.

“Any veteran or veterans’ family who is eligible for funeral and burial services will be provided them,” he said. “We continue to work hard to ensure more veterans receive a dignified funeral and burial.”

The funeral and burial benefit is administered on behalf of Veterans Affairs by the non-profit Last Post Fund, which was founded in 1909 and currently covers up to $7,376 for a veterans’ funeral.

Additional funds may also be available to pay for the burial plot, interment or cremation.

The program was heavily criticized for years for only covering the costs of those veterans whose estates were valued at less than $12,000, after the Chretien government cut the threshold from $24,000 in 1995.

But the Trudeau government raised the threshold last October and tied it to the consumer price index, with the cutoff currently sitting at $35,738.

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