National Newswatch

OTTAWA — The federal government is looking to extend the amount of time that officials have to respond to veterans seeking various different types of benefits and support for their service-related injuries.

The move follows years of criticism after Veterans Affairs Canada consistently forced former service members to wait months longer than promised to access support — or even find out whether they qualify.

Those delays have been found to add further stress and frustration on injured veterans as they wait for medical or financial assistance.

Veterans Affairs Canada says it wants to give veterans a more "realistic" idea of when they can expect to hear back when they request assistance, and that many of the new timelines will be rolled out before the end of the fiscal year.

But Virginia Vaillancourt, acting national president of the Union of Veterans Employees, said the solution isn't to make veterans wait longer — it is investing more resources to keep them from having to wait in the first place.

"With more staff in the office, it means that the veterans are actually going to get the service, the benefits and the care that they deserve — and that the government has promised them," Vaillancourt said.

"Whether you're telling them it's going to be eight weeks or 24 weeks, they still have that stress of waiting and not knowing if they will be approved for services and benefits."

Veterans Affairs has struggled to provide timely benefits and support to former service members for years, in part because of Conservative-era budget cuts and layoffs from which the department still hasn't fully recovered.

Compounding the problem has been a sharp increase in demand for services in recent years, which has created a backlog of applications for disability benefits and slowed response times in the provision of support.

The Trudeau Liberals promised during the last election to fix the problem by hiring more staff, and most recently committed $42 million over two years to address a backlog of applications for disability benefits that had reached 29,000 files.

But performance continues to lag; while injured veterans are told they can expect to know within 16 weeks whether they simply qualify for disability benefits, ombudsman Guy Parent found the average wait remains 23 to 29 weeks.

The department has also consistently exceeded its own targets when it comes to providing veterans with quick access to long-term care, career training services, income-replacement benefits and rehabilitation services.

It has also routinely failed to quickly respond veterans' phone calls within two minutes.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information show officials have taken a close look at changing when the clock starts running on requests for some types of services — and extending the promised delivery times outright in others.

A more realistic timeline than the current 16-week target for approving applications for disability benefits would be between 20 and 30 weeks, officials say in the documents, depending on the applicant's medical conditions.

Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Emily Gauthier confirmed in an email that the department is revising the timelines for various services, which she said was "to provide realistic timeframes for veterans and others we serve."

The department "continues to strive to provide faster, more efficient, higher quality service," she added. "We will review our service standards on a yearly basis and revise them when we've made significant improvements to our actual performance."

Parent indicated last month that he supported providing veterans with a more realistic assessment of when they can expect to hear from the department, which would ease their stress and frustration at being forced to wait.

But Vaillancourt disagreed with that assessment, saying veterans are applying for support because they require financial or medical assistance and that simply telling them that they can expect to wait longer won't help address their needs.

Afghan veteran Aaron Bedard, who led a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge against the government over lifetime disability pensions, blasted the department's plan to ease its service targets, calling it a "step backwards."

While providing timely access can be a challenge when it comes to veterans, it should always be a priority, said Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, which focuses on helping former service members with mental-health injuries.

"Ultimately, the goal is to ensure when an ill or injured member of the Canadian Armed Forces reaches out to access the help they deserve, that the access is timely," Maxwell said. "That's got to be the objective always."

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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