By the end of the year, veterans will be able to go online to apply for Veterans Affairs Canada benefits and services, one of the suggestions in the 2011 annual report of the Veterans Ombudsman.
Providing online application for benefits is one way for VAC to improve communications and access for veterans, says Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent. “The ultimate goal,” is for veterans to use a benefits navigator on the VAC website. Such a navigator was developed for use by staff in the ombudsman’s office when it opened in 2007 and shared with VAC following a technological upgrade in 2011.
VAC says the benefits navigator was tested and has now been made available to all department staff. Once available to clients online at www.veterans.gc.ca “it will provide better and faster access to the department’s policies and guidelines for disability benefits,” said VAC spokesman Simon Forsyth. But veterans and their families without computer access or savvy will continue to have access to services and information through traditional channels, including the toll-free line and in person at VAC offices across the country.
Better communications is one of the top issues identified in the ombudsman’s 2011 annual report, which noted half of the 1,800 veterans with a disability assessment of 98 per cent or higher had not been informed by VAC of their eligibility for the exceptional incapacity allowance, which could mean as much as $1,000 a month. Had the benefits navigator been available earlier, eligible veterans “would have known right away,” Parent said in an interview with Legion Magazine.
Parent sees benefits for VAC, too. “It’s a good training tool for new staff,” learning VAC’s labyrinthine menu of benefits and services, among a myriad of other uses.
The annual report highlights other VAC communication problems, including not informing all survivors about changes to benefits after a veteran’s death; not always explaining why requests for treatment and medication are denied, making it difficult for veterans to gather documents for an appeal of the decision; and lack of a communications campaign to inform veterans of benefits.
In 2011, the ombudsman’s office recorded a 23 per cent increase in contacts. It received 9,500 calls, up from 7,700 the previous year. It opened 1,823 new cases and closed 2,099.
While VAC has reported its decision process for disability benefits has been reduced to 16 from 24 weeks, it’s difficult to determine if that’s attributable to improvements in processing applications, or when VAC starts to count, says the report. Neither time required to gather evidence nor the 21 weeks needed to prepare a case for appeal is reflected in VAC’s service standard, says the report. For a veteran who appeals a negative decision “it can take well over a year to go through the application and appeal process.” The cumulative effect of processing time at VAC, the Bureau of Pension Advocates and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board “is not acceptable,” says the report.
Other anomalies were noted. A new policy meant to expand eligibility for treatment benefits such as massage therapy and physiotherapy has not been uniformly applied. And while outsiders who help a veteran get to a medical appointment are reimbursed for their expenses, family members are not.
Parent intends to continue pressing for better earnings-loss benefits for part-time reservists. While monthly financial assistance of up to 75 per cent of pre-release salary is provided for regular forces, with a guarantee of a $40,000 minimum, it’s $24,300 for part-time reservists. This fails to recognize reservists “have the same financial needs…and that they may have lost the ability to return to well-paid civilian jobs or to educational pursuits.”
Taking care of ill and injured members and veterans of the armed forces and the RCMP is a matter of national security, says the report. “For the Canadian Forces to effectively recruit, employ and deploy, service personnel must have complete faith that their needs will be met while they serve and afterward.”