Guest column: Canada’s veterans continue to face disability nightmare

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While the world follows the explosive events in Ukraine, an important decision has just been made which will impact veterans much closer to home.

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The federal government has announced that it will commit $140 million toward working off the backlog of veteran’s disability claims.

Sounds like quite the boon for our veterans, doesn’t it?

Not so fast.

If you have been following this situation, you might know this is progress in the way that tossing someone an ice pack after you have just beaten them over the head is progress.

The manner in which Canadian veterans have been treated is shameful. With backlogs of up to 20,000 disability claims and a threadbare mental health system, brave men and women who have served their country have not had the favor returned, instead often being tossed aside in their times of need.

Outcomes I feel are worse than ever for Canadian veterans.

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Compared to the general population and veterans of the Second World War and Korean War, they experience pronounced health problems, including elevated rates of chronic pain, high blood pressure and long-term disability — all of which is compounded by psychological scars from their service.

Our veterans disproportionately experience depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Suicide rates among Canadian veterans are 50 per cent higher than the general population for males and double for females.

They often struggle to find employment after leaving the armed forces and end up homeless at far higher rates than non-veterans. In many cases, because of the physical and psychological barriers they face, many are not able to work in the first place.

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This is where veteran’s disability benefits, which provide financial, medical and housing support, are supposed to come in and in theory where the government’s $140 million infusion should make a difference.

But the problem is much bigger than that.

For one, the backlog of veteran’s disability claims is not merely a staffing issue. The application process itself is cumbersome, convoluted and in need of overhaul for applicants and administrators alike.

As it stands, one might think the process was designed with backlogs as a goal.

It has also been plagued by a lack of coordination between Veterans Affairs and the external organizations, such as medical clinics and doctor’s offices, which furnish documentation necessary for each application to be approved.

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In other words, serving Canadian veterans in an effective, timely manner requires foundational changes to the application process, as well as sustained relationship building between Veterans Affairs, veterans and outside organizations.

This is not something that can be achieved with $140 million for ad hoc staffers. It requires time, long-term commitment and a genuine interest in the well-being of the men and women who have served in the Canadian Armed Forces.

It also requires recognizing and addressing the reality that for many veterans depending on disability support is a product of having already been let down by other parts of the system.

With just nine occupational stress injury clinics for a population of 600,000 veterans across the country, Canadian veterans have to face pronounced and increasingly long waits to receive mental health services — some being forced to wait up to seven months after first requesting them.

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These delays allow service-related psychological issues to fester, making them more resistant to treatment and deepening the impact they have on all aspects of life, including the ability to find and maintain employment.

The treatment of physical issues which prevents a return to work also depends significantly on whether someone can already access supports offered through their disability benefits.

Lacking the proper supports — and with their disability benefits in administrative limbo — our veterans who could potentially return to work at some point and take weight off the system are set up to fail in that pursuit.

This contributes to the hulking backlog of claims now weighing down Veterans Affairs which even if dealt with effectively in the short term, will resurface until the government recognizes it is just a symptom of a more foundational problem.

So, while you follow the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine, take some time to also remember there are still many Canadians fighting here at home.

Spencer van Vloten is a Vancouver-based disability advocate, while also serving as editor of BC Disability, an online disability resource.


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