Veterans Affairs Canada has been advised to brace for a deluge of new disability benefit applications after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
The pandemic caused a 44 per cent reduction in applications for benefits but “there is every indication…that as soon as Canadians’ lives return to some semblance of normalcy, the number of applications will increase,” said the December report by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA).
The first of 15 recommendations in the report on VAC’s backlog of disability claims advises that planning should begin immediately “for a potential influx of benefit applications delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For years, applications have come in faster than VAC could clear them, due to changes and expansion of benefits, growing awareness of benefits, a surge in demand for mental health services and an increase in medically released veterans. Between 2015 and 2020, applications increased 40 per cent, from 45,000 to 63,100, while the number processed rose by 35 per cent.
“There is no quick fix to this major backlog.”
A change to the policy under which veterans who received partial entitlement could apply for full entitlement resulted in a large increase in the number of applications handled by the Legion, said Service Bureau Director Ray McInnis.
“That one change alone resulted in many more departmental reviews,” he told the committee. “Historically, the Legion would complete approximately 80 departmental reviews in a year. However, from August 2018 to December 2018, we completed 552. In 2019, we completed 601.”
VAC handles many more applications.
The department has reassigned employees and added hundreds of new and temporary staff to address the backlog, which it hoped to clear by 2022. In June 2020, the department announced 300 more full-time staff would be hired over the next two years to focus on the most common applications, including hearing loss and musculoskeletal conditions. “We are having an effect,” Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay told the committee.
The pandemic saw the backlog shrink to under 19,000, down from 21,572 on June 30, VAC reported, but 17,537 people with complete applications had been waiting for a decision for more than 16 weeks.
The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) counted 49,216 pending applications in March 2020. VAC explained that it considers applications to be backlogged only when all necessary information has been received and a decision has not been made within 16 weeks.
The department announced 300 more full-time staff would be hired over the next two years.
VAC should count unassigned applications in the backlog, ACVA recommended. Furthermore, it recommends VAC publish a comprehensive online report about the backlog every six months beginning in July 2021.
Details should include the number of new applications, the proportion deemed complex, the number of decisions made, the number of decisions made within 16 weeks and the number that took longer. It also recommends breaking out the average and median wait times for RCMP and CAF, men and women and anglophone and francophone applicants.
Although VAC reported average wait times of between 28 and 30 weeks, “these average wait times do not reflect the experiences of witnesses…who experienced much longer wait times,” said the report. The PBO found the department met its 16-week target only 37 per cent of the time.
The report also recommends that VAC increase hiring efforts for bilingual and francophone adjudicators across the country. The veterans ombudsman reported in 2018 that applications from French speakers sometimes took more than twice as long to process as those of anglophones.
To prevent the backlog from rebuilding, ACVA recommends VAC retain the reassigned and temporary extra staff beyond March 2022. It also recommended the department test an automatic provisional approval procedure for some conditions.
This would “exhibit good faith in dealing with the existing backlog,” said the report, and will uphold the principle of giving the applicant the benefit of the doubt.
It was also recommended that VAC continue to expand the list of medical conditions for presumptive automatic approval and to include specific medical conditions that can presumptively be connected to women’s service in the CAF and RCMP.
Several recommendations were aimed at the Canadian Armed Forces. It was advised to ensure that all injuries are documented in its records, that its members sign a letter consenting to transfer medical information to VAC and that six months prior to a medical release, CAF provide VAC diagnoses supporting that decision.
The backlog in processing disability claims is largely unpredictable, said the report.
“There is no quick fix to this major backlog,” McInnis told the committee. “We do not see any end in sight. In fact, we believe that when the new transition groups are fully operational, more released personnel will be applying for benefits. There is a danger of the backlog becoming longer.”