Media coverage of VAC cuts

PSAC's media event calling on the federal government to cancel plans to close regional Veterans Affairs offices received a lot of coverage. Here it is: 

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal
City News, Friday, October 4, 2013

Veterans appeal for services Offices already short-staffed; closures will add to grief, they say

by Sandi Krasowski
The Chronicle-Journal

A national protest is brewing over the pending closure of Veterans Affairs offices in nine communities, including Thunder Bay.

Veterans gathered in Ottawa, hosted a webcast and launched a video illustrating why the federal government should not close offices in Charlottetown, Corner Brook, Sydney, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Brandon, Saskatoon, Prince George and Kelowna.

The Thunder Bay office serves more than 2,000 clients from the Manitoba border to Blind River. Services include health care assistance, in-home services, mental health matters, medical equipment and nursing.

Veteran John Stewart said the local office is already short-staffed.

He said phone calls are routed through a national call centre and a trip to the office to request a service results in an open-ended promise that can take up to five weeks to be fulfilled.

"When I phone, I get a long distance number and they say they will get a hold of me in five days," said Stewart.

"But they are so short of staff, they don't get a hold of you."

The phone situation has proven to be frustrating for those using the service.

Ken Sheffield, who has a hearing impairment, said the first thing a caller is asked is what province they are calling from.

"That gives you an idea," he said. "From one coast to the other is where you start."

After being passed along the phone system through several people, it's not uncommon to be told that the person they should speak with is off for the day, the veterans said.

"It's frustrating when you can't get on the phone and say, 'hello, I'm in trouble and this is what's wrong, what do I do,'" said Sheffield.

"It should be a little bit simpler I think."

Roy Lamore, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 5 who spoke from Ottawa, suggested the government buy one less fighter jet and put the money toward keeping a Veterans Affairs office open and operating properly.

"To our government, don't be shortsighted and take our dreams away. Don't push our veterans into a corner," he said via the webcast.

"We've done enough fighting," said Lamore, who teared up as he read a poem that is recited at military funerals and ends with the words "we will remember them."

"My question to you," said Lamore, "will you remember the veterans?"

The closure of the local office has left John Kennedy feeling that veterans are being treated unfairly.

"I just feel that we need the human aspect of speaking to somebody instead of on the phone. It's not the personalized feeling that some of us need," he said.

"Waiting for this and waiting for that, I just hate to see the local office close."

The closure of the Thunder Bay Veterans Affairs office is slated for February.

"I can't see it doing anybody any good," said Jim Heald.

"They are so short of staff up there that they don't know whether they are coming or going. It's hard enough for people to get service already, and closing the local office, I have no idea how people are going to manage," said Heald.

The sessions Thursday were hosted by the Public Service Alliance of Canada whose members' jobs are threatened.

Government ‘betraying veterans’ with cuts to service offices: union
By Michelle Zilio | Oct 3, 2013 3:17 pm |  | 0 Comments


Veteran Terry Collins answers a question during a press conference held by veterans and PSAC members in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 to protest the closure of Veteran’s Affairs offices. iPolitics/ Matthew Usherwood

The Union of Veterans Affairs employees launched a campaign Thursday to halt the closure of Veterans Affairs district offices across Canada.

The union said the government is “betraying veterans” in its plan to close Veterans Affairs district offices in Corner Brook, Charlottetown, Sydney, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Brandon, Saskatoon, Kelowna and Prince George by the end of February 2014. According to the union, the Prince George district office has already closed.

Veterans Affairs confirmed the closures Thursday. The department said that while the Charlottetown office is closing, an access centre will remain open for veterans.

The Veterans Affairs case managers in those offices, who are also members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), provide crucial services to veterans, including home visits for veterans who can’t easily leave their homes, walking veterans through paperwork, and providing resources, psychiatric and medical care for traumatized war vets.

Three members of the union and five veterans who rely on Veterans Affairs services spoke out against the closures at a panel in Ottawa Thursday, where they launched the ‘We Are All Affected’ campaign. The campaign also will feature a public service announcement video.

“This government is betraying veterans,” said PSAC National President Robyn Benson Thursday. “Our veterans deserve better. These offices should not be closed.”

The union said the closures are a result of “drastic cuts” to Veterans Affairs staff and services in the 2012 budget. More than 784 Veterans Affairs jobs have been cut since the 2012 budget was implemented, including case managers, client service agents, disability pension officers, nurses and administrative staff, said the union.

“These are the frontline workers who work one-on-one with veterans to ensure that they have access to all of the benefits to which they are entitled,” said the union in a press release.

Office closures will also mean veterans will have to travel further to access some services. The union said this will create difficulties for many older veterans who are no longer allowed to drive, as well as younger veterans suffering from PTSD or other mental health issues that can make driving difficult.

Department spokesperson Janice Summerby said in an email that the department is keeping up with the changing demographics of veterans across Canada. For instance, she said, as of 2013 the department is providing service to more “modern veterans” who served in recent wars such as Afghanistan.

In one of its attempts to adjust to these demographic changes, the department has partnered with Service Canada to provide Veterans Affairs services at more than 600 locations across Canada.

“In many cases (veterans) will only have to travel a short distance to their local Service Canada office for basic assistance where in the past they would have had to travel several hours to a district office,” said Summerby.

Veterans also can access information about assistance programs by phone or through Veterans Affairs’ online services such as the Benefits Browser, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) account and My VAC Book.

For many veterans who suffer from PTSD, the thought of accessing assistance through a phone or computer is overwhelming. When veteran Terry Collins heard his district office in Sydney was closing, he said he was devastated. Collins, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, said he relies on the face-to-face meetings with Veterans Affairs case managers to deal with his PTSD and physical injuries.

“Veterans won’t know what to do. They will get discouraged very easily. They will avoid anything and everything they don’t understand,” said Collins. “There’s a big difference between having someone sit down with you one-on-one like they do now and having them on the phone or on a computer. It’s very impersonal.”

The panel said Service Canada attendants don’t have the special training for working with veterans. Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, who attended Thursday’s event, said he would pass those training concerns onto Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.

Although the district offices are closing, Veterans Affairs said its clients can continue to rely on home visits from nurses and case managers.

However, NDP critic for Veterans Affairs Peter Stoffer said this is not true because the department simply won’t have the staff required to continue providing home visits.

“The case managers we have now are way overworked,” said Stoffer. “There’s just simply not enough of them to do the job that we ask them to do.”

Stoffer said he is also concerned about the effects of changing case managers on veterans. He likened the partnership between a veteran and their case manager to a doctor-patient relationship, where the doctor knows the patient’s case and what the patient needs.

“It’s a very comfortable relationship and the veterans really appreciate being able to tell their concerns or story to just one person. If they have to tell it to three or four different people every time … that’s going to be very frustrating for them.”

The union said that many veterans don’t know about the closures and that Veterans Affairs case managers are breaking the news to their clients during home visits. The union also said that it was told veterans would not be informed about the closures in writing until late November, or one month before each closure.



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