OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is failing in its promise to spread the heavy caseloads borne by staff at Veterans Affairs Canada in an effort to make sure veterans are served properly, according to recent internal briefing materials.
Case managers assigned to severely disabled veterans are supposed to help cut through the red tape that stands between them and the services and benefits they're entitled to after they have left the military, and there have long been complaints about large caseloads.
The result was many veterans had to wait months for their files to be assigned to case managers and, even then, difficulty getting help as case managers were often overwhelmed and had little time to talk to veterans about their struggles.
The Liberals promised several years ago to reduce the ratio of veterans to assigned to each case manager from a high of 40-1 under Stephen Harper's Conservatives to 25-1 by hiring more staff.
Yet while the government has more than doubled the number of case managers at Veterans Affairs since 2015, to 411 from 194, newly released figures show the ratio has been stuck around 32-1.
Officials acknowledged their inability to meet the government's target in briefing notes prepared for Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was appointed veterans-affairs minister in January. She resigned a few weeks later, over her treatment in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
"Despite the increase in funding and resources, Veterans Affairs Canada has been unable to achieve the stated objective to reduce the caseload ratios," reads one note obtained through the access-to-information law.
The department specifically blamed a surprise increase in the number of veterans asking for case-managed services.
The department had been hiring more case managers, Wilson-Raybould was told, but was having difficulty in some areas "given the competitive labour market and a variety of other reasons."
At the same time, "it is recognized that simply increasing staff numbers will not meet the increasing demand," which was why officials were rolling out a suite of new initiatives.
Those included directing more veterans to online services and screening them based on need, with less-severe cases being sent to "service-delivery agents" instead of case managers.
"All of these strategies are in progress and the department expects to see a sustainable decrease in the ratios over the next few years," reads the briefing note.
Yet at least one veteran says the result has been a decrease in the support he's received since having his case manager replaced by a service-delivery agent.
"The dedicated veterans' service agent just doesn't have the experience," said Don Leonardo, a 20-year veteran who served in the former Yugoslavia and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It takes weeks and weeks to get a simple answer because they all have to go up the chain to get the answer to your question. It is frustrating."
The department's figures show a great degree of variance between caseloads across the country, with western Quebec achieving the 25-1 ratio.
But Central Ontario, Alberta and the Northwest Territories trailed far behind, with case managers in each dealing with 37 cases apiece. The rest of the country fell somewhere in between.
Virginia Vaillancourt, national president of the Union of Veterans' Affairs Employees, said even those numbers aren't accurate. She said she knows some individual case managers with up to 60 cases.
Such heavy caseloads have a direct impact on employees, who are pushed to the brink and can end up quitting, said Vaillancourt, which ultimately hurts veterans.
While Vaillancourt said there have been mixed reactions to the new initiatives being rolled out by the government, "the reasonable solution is to hire more case managers."
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay's spokesman Alex Wellstead said the government is committed to better supporting those who have served in uniform by hiring more staff and making it easier to access services.
"If a veteran requires a case manager, they will receive the best care possible until they feel they have made a successful transition," he said.
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press