Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence Minister Lawrence MacAulay responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday, November 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Veterans minister declares backlog progress even as overall numbers go up

Veterans minister declares backlog progress even as overall numbers go up

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is claiming success after reducing the number of older claims for disability benefits from veterans, even as the overall number of files in the system remains unchanged and advocates fear COVID-19 is preventing new requests for help.

The office of Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay provided updated figures to The Canadian Press Thursday evening, hours after he boasted his department was beginning to make progress in cutting down the controversial backlog of applications.

They show that while total number of claims held by Veterans Affairs remained steady at around 45,000 at the end of September, the number sitting in the queue for longer than four months stood at 19,600 — about 2,000 less than three months earlier.

The 45,000 includes another 3,600 completed applications that have been waiting for less than four months — an increase of 1,300 from the end of June — and almost 9,500 for which the clock hasn’t started ticking because a staff member has not been assigned to it.

The remainder are what Veterans Affairs describes as “incomplete” applications waiting for more information.

The updated figures also show Veterans Affairs processed only 7,400 files between July and September, a decline of 2,100 from the previous three months. It was nearly 5,000 less than during the same period in 2019.

At the same time, the figures show the department received significantly fewer new requests for assistance than what it received last year, which advocates have attributed to veterans having challenges obtaining medical records during the pandemic.

Fewer than 10,000 new applications were received between July and September, compared to the normal three-month average of around 14,000 in 2019. That difference has raised concerns about veterans in need being unable to apply for help.

Veterans Affairs has acknowledged that former service members might be having trouble getting the information they need to apply.

But the Liberal government has so far ignored requests to lower the burden of proof on veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it has offered former service members more time to collect the necessary information and it will expedite claims from at-risk vets.

MacAulay repeatedly referred to the reduction in long-overdue claims during an appearance before a House of Commons committee on Thursday, where opposition MPs grilled him over the government’s latest plan to tackle the backlog.

The backlog has emerged as a serious political problem for the federal Liberal government and a more personal one for veterans with disabilities, with thousands them forced to wait months or years to learn whether they qualify for federal benefits and services.

Advocates say the long waits compound the financial and emotional stress of veterans with applications in the queue. Many are struggling to make ends meet while dealing with mental and physical injuries.

The Liberal government announced in June it was setting aside almost $90 million to hire 300 temporary staff to help process disability applications.

“What we have to do is what I’ve indicated previously, to make sure that we digitize the files and co-ordinate the staff,” MacAulay told the committee Thursday.

“And look, with that alone, we have started to reduce the backlog. And when we have those new employees come online, it’s going to make a big difference.”

Veterans’ advocates and other witnesses later told the committee the government’s plan falls short of what is needed. The parliamentary budget officer said even with the new hires, there will still be about 40,000 unprocessed applications in two years.

“The proposal to date has been akin to addressing an amputation with a Band-Aid,” said Doreen Weatherbie, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing adjudicators at Veterans Affairs.

Veterans’ groups have called for automatic approvals of disability claims, with spot audits to deter cheaters. Conservative veterans affairs critic John Brassard noted a similar approach was taken for emergency benefits to help Canadians during the pandemic.

“This is a dire situation,” Brassard told MacAulay.

“So if the government can move at the speed of light for (COVID-19), then why is it not moving at the speed of light for Canada’s veterans and their families?”

NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney referred to the COVID-19 challenges during the committee meeting, asking MacAulay whether the department has a plan to deal with an expected influx of new applications after the pandemic.

“We have no control on what comes in. The only thing we can deal with is what comes in,” the minister said. “If there is a spike after, as I always said, our job is to make sure we provide the benefits for veterans.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Disabled veterans

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Two roundabouts will be built at each end of the Highway 2 and McKenzie Road overpass in Red Deer County at the south end of Gasoline Alley. Major detours will be in place this summer while construction is underway. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Powerline work causes delays on Highway 2 in Red Deer

Southbound drivers on the QEII are experiencing delays Wednesday morning. Powerline work… Continue reading

Ponoka RCMP said Traytyn Okeymow, 22, was last seen at this residence at about 9:45 p.m. on April 4. (Photo contributed)
Missing man located by Ponoka RCMP

Ponoka RCMP seek public’s help

RCMP file photo (Photo by Jeff Stokoe/Advocate staff)
RCMP lay cattle rustling, drug and firearm charges in central Alberta

A cattle rustling investigation in Clearwater County led to firearms and drug… Continue reading

(File photo by Advocate staff)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a statement after a meeting of the college of commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced plans Wednesday for a major contract extension for COVID-19 vaccines with Pfizer stretching to 2023. (John Thys, Pool via AP)
EU reaches major climate deal ahead of Biden climate summit

Provisional deal reached after officials negotiated through the night

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Opinion piece
Opinion: Federal budget spends more on everything with no plan to pay for it

The British politician Nigel Lawson once said: “To govern is to choose… Continue reading

FILE - Ted Nugent performs at Rams Head Live in Baltimore on Aug. 16, 2013. Nugent revealed he was in agony after testing positive for coronavirus — months after he said the virus was “not a real pandemic.” “I thought I was dying,” Nugent says in a Facebook live video posted Monday. (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP, File)
Ted Nugent, who once dismissed COVID-19, sickened by virus

Rocker a supporter of ex-President Donald Trump

Gwynne Dyer
Bolsonaro: Suicide by COVID

‘Rounding into the home stretch, it’s Italy by a full length, then… Continue reading

Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Red Deer, June 28, 1990. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer and the Royal Family

The recent passing and funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks' Tanner Pearson, right, celebrates after scoring against Toronto Maple Leafs goalie David Rittich during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Pearson, Sutter each score twice as Canucks dump Leafs 6-3

Pearson, Sutter each score twice as Canucks dump Leafs 6-3

Most Read