Ottawa harasses injured soldiers

Posted on March 6, 2015 in Child & Family Delivery System – Opinion/Commentary – Department of veterans affairs needs a total shake-up, a different mindset and a staff trained to put people before paperwork.
Mar 05 2015.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

At the tail end of question period on Friday, Feb. 27, Pierre Lemieux, parliamentary secretary of the Minister of Veterans Affairs, rose in the House of Commons to announce good news. Veterans with lost limbs would no longer be required to verify their condition annually. The cycle would be lengthened to once every three years.

Opposition MPs shook their heads in disbelief. Why would the government ask amputees to confirm that their legs or arms were still missing? Did it think they grew back? Did it suppose wounded veterans stopped needing wheelchairs or housekeeping help or income replacement? Did it believe Canadians want soldiers who pay a grievous price serving their country to be treated like cheaters or parasites?

Lemieux, who spent 20 years in the armed forces, took exception to this characterization. “Through eight budgets, our government has earmarked over $5 billion in new funding to improve the benefits and services that we provide to veterans and their families,” he pointed out. “We are here to help veterans.”

It certainly didn’t sound that way.

An aide to Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole stepped in to clarify the policy. “Veterans who have been granted entitlement for a disability benefit for any service-related injury or condition are not asked to prove their disability again,” Marton Magnan explained. “Veterans Affairs has a responsibility to proactively update the government to ensure they have the necessary support and treatment for their current condition.”

His interpretation made more sense, but didn’t fit the evidence. Bureaucrats aren’t qualified to assess the medical needs of severely injured veterans. That is the role of doctors and physiotherapists. If a change in arrangements is warranted — a veteran gets a prosthesis, for instance — he or she can ask the department for a review at any time.

At best, this was a case of bad communication. At worst, it was confirmation that the department of veterans affairs is more interested in tidy paperwork than the well-being of wounded soldiers.

This fiasco — the latest of dozens — was prompted by a complaint from Master Corporal Paul Franklin who lost both legs in a suicide bombing in Kandahar nine years ago. Since retiring from military service, he has been caught in a bureaucratic nightmare. The department of veterans affairs required him to fill out a renewal form each year for the benefits he is receiving. Twice, as a result of these reviews, he was deprived of his wheelchair while bureaucrats sorted out his eligibility.

In early February Franklin went to CTV in frustration. That prompted the minister to call him personally and promise relief.

Lemieux’s announcement was the result: The review process stays, the frequency changes.

This can’t be dismissed as a fumble by an inexperienced backbencher. Lemieux is a three-term MP who served as parliamentary secretary to the agriculture minister until he was assigned to veterans affairs in January. He was a member of the special House of Commons committee on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan and deputy whip for the government.

Nor can ministerial incompetence be blamed. O’Toole, appointed in January after Julian Fantino’s troubled tenure, is a decorated air force captain and a corporate lawyer who was brought in to defuse the tension between veterans and Ottawa. He treated Franklin with respect and tried to rectify the situation.

The department does not appear to be understaffed or underfunded. It has 2,755 employees to serve 200,000 clients, most of them requiring little care. Its budget of $3.6 billion has gone up by 30 per cent since the Conservatives took power. There is nothing wrong with its mandate: “to support the men and women who put their lives at risk defending this country and its values.” And its performance in some areas — organizing commemorations, sending out war veterans’ allowances and delivering retirement benefits — is satisfactory.

But when it comes to tasks requiring judgment or sensitivity it consistently falls down. Its staff expects disabled veterans to conform to the department’s policies and programs. It inundates them with paperwork. It responds to complaints with form letters telling them how to comply with the rules.

Well-intentioned tinkering, as O’Toole attempted, won’t solve the problem. It is too deeply embedded in the culture of the 92-year-old department. What is needed is a total shake-up led by a prime minister with a different mindset, executed by public officials committed to improving and delivered by employees trained to fit programs to people, not the reverse.

Canada’s troops willingly put their physical and mental health on the line for their country. They should never have to beg for rehabilitation or support when they come home with broken bodies or tormented minds.

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