OTTAWA — The federal Liberals have caved to mounting anger and frustration from within Canada’s veterans’ community, promising more than $140 million to retain hundreds of temporary staff hired to deal with a backlog of disability claims from injured ex-soldiers.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced the commitment in a news release on Wednesday, only weeks after he told a parliamentary committee that any such decision would have to wait for the coming federal budget.
“Nothing is more important right now than ensuring veterans receive their benefits in a timely manner and we remain committed to reducing the processing times for disability benefit applications,” MacAulay said in a statement.
“We are making tangible progress, but the job is not done. With this investment, VAC staff can continue making decisions faster, and get the backlog under control.”
While the statement did not say how many temporary adjudicators would be retained past the end of March, MacAulay’s spokesman John Embury said the funding will support 595 temporary positions over the next two years.
The Royal Canadian Legion, whose dominion president had written a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the issue following a report by The Canadian Press earlier this month, nonetheless welcomed the news.
“The Legion is reassured by a significant new investment to clear Canada’s backlog of veteran disability claims,” it said in a statement.
“We thank government for providing Veterans Affairs Canada with the additional financial support needed to retain extra temporary staff, and look forward to seeing this serious backlog shrink rapidly over the coming months.”
The backlog has emerged as one of the main sources of frustration, anger and hardship for Canada's veterans' community, with those ill and injured forced to wait months — and often years — for access to financial or medical support for their injuries.
The Canadian Press reported earlier this month that contracts for only 168 of the more than 500 temporary adjudicators hired since 2018 had been extended for a year, even though Veterans Affairs still had nearly 34,000 unprocessed claims on its desk.
Adding to the concern were warnings from departmental officials that the number of unprocessed disability claims, which were finally on the decline, would actually start to grow by the thousands again if more temporary workers weren’t retained.
MacAulay at the time said the government was leaving the door open to extending the contracts of more temporary staff to keep a lid on the backlog, but insisted any new investment would have to wait until the next federal budget in the spring.
"I cannot indicate what would be in the budget, because it's not appropriate," MacAulay said during his appearance before the House of Commons veterans' affairs committee on Feb. 1.
"But the fact is I've indicated quite clearly that we will be seeking additional funding to make sure that we continue on the same track that we're on to reduce the backlog."
In his open letter to the prime minister, Royal Canadian Legion dominion president Bruce Julian called on the government to take immediate action and address the backlog.
“We ask that funds be openly guaranteed to enable these adjudicators to keep working, and to bring on even more assistance,” Julian wrote to Trudeau on Feb. 16, adding veterans were waiting far too long for their claims to be processed.
“While they await these decisions, treatment is not accessible through any VAC benefits and their health continues to deteriorate. This is indefensible and cannot continue in good conscience.”
The Canadian Press, which was the first to report the existence of the backlog in 2017, detailed in a series last year the additional stress and difficulties that veterans stuck in the backlog are experiencing as they wait for their claims to be processed.
Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux in September 2020 reported the government would need to keep most of those temporary staff past their current contract set to end in March 2022 for another three years to properly deal with the backlog.
Giroux also said the government could have eliminated the entire backlog by the end of 2021 by hiring 400 additional employees on top of those already under contract by adding $159 million to the budget. The Liberals ignored this recommendation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press