The backlog of benefit applications at Veterans Affairs Canada is beyond exasperating.
Despite good intentions, despite throwing more money and additional people at the problem, the backlog persists, and is even poised to grow as the pandemic winds down, if predictions of veterans’ advocates prove correct.
Veterans Affairs Canada set its service standard at providing decisions on 80 per cent of applications within 16 weeks of accepting them, a target it met for fewer than one in four applications in 2019-2020. This was down from 37 per cent the year before.
The reason for the backlog is simple. The department is flooded with applications. New benefits have come on stream, eligibility for other benefits has been widened, and veterans and serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP are more aware of benefits for which they qualify.
To address the problem, the government has dedicated nearly $200 million in funding and VAC has kept the 168 adjudicators brought on in 2018. And it has hired 350 more employees.
The department reports improvement in transmission of information from the CAF and RCMP, digitization of files for quicker turnaround and the introduction of veteran benefit teams to guide applications.
These measures made a dent in the backlog over the year ending March 31, 2021, but there were still 15,214 applications pending. Some of those veterans had been waiting for a decision since 2019, said Ray McInnis, director of veterans services with The Royal Canadian Legion.
In this time, acute problems can progress to chronic conditions.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates with current resources the backlog will be whittled down by 2022. But it will rebuild if the extra staff is let go. If the extra staff is kept on through 2022, the backlog would be eliminated in early 2023.
Extra staff and money certainly will help with the problem. But so will a more innovative approach.
The benefits system for veterans was designed after the Second World War, when more than a million men and women were shedding their uniforms. Complex eligibility requirements were needed to weed out fraudsters and ensure fairness.
Needs have changed over the past seven decades and society expects speedy action, lest financially strapped veterans delay treatment while waiting for a decision. In this time, acute problems can progress to chronic conditions.
Innovation is needed. One option is automatic pre-approval of some disability benefit claims, investigation of which is supported by the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA), the Legion and the National Council of Veterans Associations.
It is not a stretch to accept that a gunner’s hearing loss is connected to exposure to gunfire and explosions, or knee damage is connected to parachute jumps, as claimed in first applications. Or that those conditions worsen over time. VAC statistics show 80 per cent of first applications are approved.
But VAC points out that current Canadian legislation specifically requires veterans to establish that their disability results from, or was aggravated by, service.
The department has agreed to investigate how pre-approval works in other countries, but it’s not advisable for veterans to hold their breath. The pace needs to pick up.
“This calls for a war-like effort,” said Quebec MP Luc Desilets in an ACVA meeting on Nov. 12, 2020. We agree. Progress has been made, but not nearly enough and nowhere near fast enough.