An informative backgrounder from the Public Service Alliance of Canada, October 2, 2013
THE federal government is betraying Canada’s veterans. After putting their lives on the line on behalf of all Canadians, many veterans – especially those living with serious injuries, disabilities and mental health challenges like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – rely on Veterans Affairs for support. The Canadian government promised to take care of them from the day they enlisted until the day they die. But drastic cuts to Veterans Affairs staff and services in the 2012 budget mean that veterans are not getting the care they need and deserve.
The federal government plans to shut nine District Veterans Affairs offices in Corner Brook, Charlottetown, Sydney, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Brandon, Saskatoon, Kelowna and Prince George. The workers in these offices provide crucial services to veterans. The Prince George office has already closed and the others are set to shut their doors in February 2014. We want to help veterans stop those closures.
Government not informing veterans about the closures
Many veterans don’t even know that the Veterans Affairs offices they rely on are closing. Veterans Affairs case managers – who are PSAC members – report that they must to break the news to their clients during home visits. PSAC’s Union of Veterans Affairs Employees pressed the government on this issue in September 2013 and was told that veterans would not be informed in writing until late November (after Remembrance Day), or one month before each closure.
Office closures: The facts
– Nine regional VAC offices are slated to be closed by the end of February 2014.
– As of March 2013, 17,223 clients depended on seven of the offices that are slated for closure: Charlottetown, 2,252; Sydney, 4,200; Windsor, 2,629; Thunder Bay, 792; Brandon, 2,400; Corner Brook, 1,500; and Saskatoon, 3,450. The government doesn’t provide separate client numbers for Kelowna and Prince George, but says that those offices and the Penticton office had a total of 9,555 clients as of March 2013.
– The federal government has been in the process of cutting more than 784 jobs from Veterans Affairs since the 2012 budget was implemented. This includes about 89 PSAC members who work in the offices slated for closure, who are case managers, client service agents, disability pension officers, nurses and administrative staff.
– These are the frontline workers who work one-on-one with veterans to ensure that they have access to all of the benefits to which they are entitled. They make sure that elderly veterans can make the adjustments to their homes so they can continue to live independently. They help find community resources and psychiatric and medical care for traumatized war vets suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues. And they walk veterans through the paperwork that needs to be filled out in order to access their benefits and pensions.
– The planned closure of the district offices means that veterans will be forced to travel to other cities for frontline services. Or they will be forced to navigate the system by phone and computer. This is problematic for many veterans, especially those who are older and those living with PTSD and other mental health challenges.
– The government says veterans losing offices will be able to access services through Service Canada offices, but workers at Service Canada are not trained in veterans’ programs and services and are facing cuts themselves. Service Canada staff can answer very general questions, provide forms and receive completed forms. They are not able to help veterans complete forms or answer questions about which programs or benefits they may qualify for. When asked for this kind of information or assistance, staff in Service Canada offices have no choice but to point veterans to the computer or the toll-free phone line for help. That’s not front line service.
Veterans’ needs are growing
Across Canada there are currently 695,700 Veterans and 110,000 serving members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. Of them, 126,000 receive benefits and services from the department, excluding survivors, spouses and RCMP members. As of March 2013, Veterans Affairs was serving 212,199 clients. There are 570,000 more veterans who are not clients and may not be aware of the programs and services available to them.
In the last two years, the number of traditional veterans – excluding family members, survivors and the RCMP – served by Veterans Affairs has decreased from 63,000 to 49,000. But the number of Regular Force Veterans served by Veterans Affairs – again excluding family members, survivors and the RCMP – has increased from 68,000 to 76,000. That number will continue to increase, especially given that in 2013, the average age of the 594,300 Canadian Forces veterans is 56.
It’s important to note that as older veterans age they require more care and services, and that younger veterans turning to Veterans Affairs for services, such as those returning from Afghanistan, tend to have more complex needs, as many have been diagnosed with serious mental health conditions such as PTSD and OCD as a result of their experiences while deployed.
– If these offices close, the remaining VAC offices will need to absorb the clients from the soon-to-be shut offices. This will mean that employees managing an already overwhelming workload will have even less time to help veterans. Our members report that the Sydney office alone deals with 4,200 clients, including widows and other surviving family members. Those veterans and their families will be forced to travel five to seven hours to Halifax if they want frontline services. Prince Edward Island is closing its only office — veterans who depended on the Charlottetown office will have to travel to Saint John, New Brunswick for frontline services.
– The federal government has privatized the administration of veterans’ benefits to Medavie Blue Cross. The company was recently given responsibility for doing all of the follow-up for the Veterans Independence Program. Veterans Affairs client service agents used to call veterans every year and help them make sure that they were accessing the benefits they need. Now, Blue Cross sends a letter and cuts the veterans off if they can’t reach them by phone. It can take three months or more for veterans to have their benefits re-instated once they’ve been cut off.
– Veterans are also losing out because Blue Cross calculates the next year’s entitlement based on the receipts that veterans submitted in the few months previous. If veterans are a little behind on their paper work, they can see their benefits arbitrarily slashed as a result. Resolving any changes can be an administrative nightmare.
– The government privatized the Veterans Affairs call centre run by Service Canada. When a veteran calls the phone number listed on the Veterans Affairs website, they are actually directed to an employee of Quantum Management Services, not a government worker. These workers are not well informed about veterans programs and are not able to walk clients through the process of filling out an application for benefits. Veterans end up being transferred several times and waiting on hold, before they can actually speak with a client service agent at Veterans Affairs. Elderly veterans often give up, and many, especially PTSD-affected vets, get frustrated with the delays and misinformation.
What the closures will mean for veterans
– Veterans will be forced to travel further if they need to access one-on-one services. Many elderly vets are no longer permitted to drive, and some of the younger veterans with PTSD or other mental health issues find driving difficult.
– If veterans seek in-person help at a Service Canada office, they are most often directed to a computer kiosk and told to “self serve.” The average World War II or Korean War veteran is 88 years old. Their ability to navigate complicated forms online is limited, to say the least. In one case, a 92 year-old veteran arrived at a Service Canada office, was directed to a computer kiosk and offered no assistance. He ended up leaving and called the 1-800 number again, only to get caught in another administrative loop.
– VAC used to take care of veterans from the day they were released until the day they die. Now workers are being told to treat each call as a “transaction.” Workers used to walk veterans through their applications and follow up to ensure they were accessing all of the benefits they were entitled to. This happens less and less because of cuts to Veterans Affairs staff.
– Cuts to case managers also means fewer home visits for veterans. These visits are crucial for those who can’t easily leave their homes.
– Veterans need advocates — elderly people are often too proud to ask for help and younger vets suffering from PTSD need one-on-one assistance. The federal government is betraying veterans with these cuts and disregarding veterans’ years of service to Canadians. We need to stop the closure of the District offices, so veterans can access the services they need and deserve.