Veterans and their families have been promised a lot but have been delivered a whole lot less. That has to change. Now. The backlogs and waitlists for services have grown longer and the staff at Veterans Affairs Canada have struggled to try and keep up. Both Veterans and employees are suffering because of this. They are suffering physically and psychologically with no support and only hollow promises to fall back on.
The Union of Veterans Affairs’ Employees represents the majority of workers who serve Veterans and their families from coast to coast to coast. During this federal election campaign, we are highlighting the problems facing Veterans and their families and proposing some solutions. Real solutions. Not short-term fixes. We hope you will hear us, understand our unique perspective and join us to bring about real change.
Our Veterans deserve better. Let’s make that happen.
What has happened in the last few years?
Backlog and Wait Times and Caseloads
Things have gotten worse and not better. Yes, there are more programs for Veterans, however, there are many more Veterans needing our services and far fewer people at Veterans Affairs Canada to help them. There are delays at every level and in every section of the department, not just the ones that make the news. Intake workers can’t process requests because they have too many and Case Managers can’t respond because they have anywhere from 40 to 60 Veterans and their families in their caseloads. Wait times are longer than ever, backlogs are longer than ever and nobody is happy with the situation, least of all, the Veterans.
We have long-term, systemic problems at Veterans Affairs Canada and the approach of the government and management at the department has been to try and put band-aids on the wounds. Every year or so they announce some more short-term funding or some new management driven approach that stops the gap in one area, but it just pops up somewhere else. If you put temporary funding in to fix the situation in one program, like disability benefits, all the other areas like intake and secondary processing get jammed up. As more Veterans get approved for benefits, the staff put those benefits in place, or adjudicate other benefits, get a massive influx of work without the funds nor the staff to address the issue. The Department is doing nothing more than a bad slight of hand trick – moving the problem from where the press and public are looking to only hide it somewhere else. Add to that the fact that many employees are already acting in one position, due to the need to staff positions based on short-term funding, the work in the position they leave behind gets piled on the existing staff or they themselves carry that workload along with the work of their acting position. There are simply not enough people to do all the work. Short-term fixes don’t work, contracting out/privatizing the work does not work. It’s time to recognize that we have a growing Veteran group who need services and create a plan for that in the long-term. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not a viable plan to provide quality Veteran service.
What has been the impact on Veterans and their families?
What do Veterans say about all this? What is the impact of the backlogs and staff overloads? They are unhappy and dissatisfied with the service they are getting. Veteran advocacy groups say that Veterans are falling through the cracks and not getting the help they need to deal with physical, emotional or mental health needs. Their families have been abruptly cut off counselling services and some are struggling with the transition to civilian life. There is growing concern about the amount of time between first contact and when any treatment plan begins. The Veterans Ombudsperson says that it is essential that Veterans and their family members be able to access timely, evidence-informed mental health care. That care is too often delayed, deferred or not available at all. This is not just bad public policy; it is putting lives at risk.
What has been the impact on staff?
What has the last few years been like for staff at Veterans Affairs Canada? They have been under tremendous pressure to deliver at a job they love to do, serving Veterans, without the resources and leadership they have needed. They are tired and demoralized. Many of them have suffered along with the Veterans they serve. Many have gotten sick, both mentally and physically. Some of them serious enough to seek medical attention and take time off work. The nature of the work and the current working conditions are creating a mental health crisis in the Department and leaving many staff traumatized. They are frustrated with the lengthy delays and the double-talk from the department about providing quality while managing to deliver quantity. They have also been the subject of abuse and harassment and discrimination while performing their work. This has to change.
How’s the on-going and expanding privatization of Veterans Service benefit programs to Medavie Blue Cross working?
We hear over and over again from staff and Veterans about the shortcomings of the Medavie Blue Cross (MBC) Benefit Administration Program. Their original role was to simply administer the benefits that VAC staff approved. The company makes millions from this arrangement to provide everything from hearing aids to physiotherapy to mental health counseling for Veterans and their families. But their role as administrator has mutated over the years, with MBC taking more responsibility and authority. They even think they can direct staff at Veterans Affairs Canada and overturn recommendations for benefits made by staff. They think and act as if Veterans are just like any other customer of their health insurance company, which profits by saying “no!”. They think that, and do that, because no one is monitoring their performance.
The bottom line is that instead of the department providing world class service to our Veterans, the Government of Canada continues to send our Veterans’ files to an insurance company who is more interested in making profit for their shareholders than providing services to Veterans and their families. Veterans are being ill-served by a system where Medavie Blue Cross contradicts recommendations by their health care providers and decisions by VAC staff that results in confusion and frustration for the clients we are all supposed to be serving. They are also often ignoring medical facts and making changes without consulting VAC staff or the Veterans. Payments get lost, delayed and sometimes not paid at all. Why are Veterans and their families suffering when these services could and should be provided by qualified and trained departmental employees?
Is the Phoenix Pay System still a problem?
As all the troubles and travails continue at Veterans Affairs Canada it would be nice to get your pay right, on the right date, in the right amount. Many employees are still struggling with the impact of the Phoenix pay system which continues to have a damaging impact on the mental health of federal public servants. This impact is still rippling through the system and employees are fearful of making important decisions like whether to seek promotional opportunities or even retire because they cannot be sure that their income and other retirement benefits will not be negatively affected. Pay day is not supposed to feel like playing the lottery.
While the last collective agreement provided some redress, employees are now fighting against unfair repayment schemes and trying to navigate tricky taxation problems all on their own. Phoenix was a mistake that must never be repeated and anyone who has been hurt needs to be restored to wholeness before we can move on.
What needs to happen next
Despite all of the on-going challenges facing Veterans Affairs Canada, the UVAE members at VAC remain committed to providing excellent and consistent services to Veterans and their families. Some things need to change if we expect to maintain these services and increase the quality and timeliness of VAC’s programs to Veterans.
Key to the success of VAC and their employees will be stable and long-term funding, The best way to do that and deal with many other issues would be to increase the departmental operating budget from 6.5% to at least 10 %, a level considered the baseline for charities. That would allow for additional staffing levels and accommodate any surges in requests for services from any area. There also needs to be a fixed-level cap on caseloads for Case Managers. We recommend 25 as that cap. That would give Case Managers the time they need to properly care for Veterans and their families and give them the level of service they deserve.
There also needs to be a change in how Veterans Affairs Canada deals with Veterans. They are not just a number or a statistic, but a real person who has served our country and now needs our assistance, VAC should empower staff to fix any problem they can and to get every Veteran the services they require as soon as possible. They need to recognize that our Veteran population has changed and make the necessary adaptations. That will mean more focus on mental health services for Veterans, more support for their families and more training for VAC staff to prevent burnout and stress and other mental health problems from arising. For themselves and the Veterans.
That new focus should also mean bringing more work back in house that has been contracted out and stopping the steady drip of privatization that has lowered service levels and increased complaints across the department. Employees of Veterans Affairs Canada should be encouraged and supported to be life-long learners and to advance in their careers within the department. They should have the latest technology and the training to maximize it to improve services to Veterans and their families.
UVAE members are proud to serve those who have served our country. We hope that you will join us in our quest to improve all services for our Veterans and their families and to create a workplace and a department that is inclusive.
Some questions to ask the candidates in your riding
Question: Would you and your party support solid, secure and stable funding that allows service standards at VAC to be met and that leave no current or future veteran or their family behind? Would you also agree to raise the operating budget of Veterans Affairs Canada from roughly 6.5% to at least 10 % without reducing services to Veterans and their families?
Question: What specific measures would you and your party take to reduce the backlog and waitlist for Veterans and their families who apply to VAC for services? Would you agree to hiring enough full-time employees to deal with the current and emerging needs of Veterans?
Question: Would you and your party agree to establish a fixed number of caseloads for case managers at VAC and to hire additional case managers to ensure that this number was maintained? Would you further agree to peg this caseload number at 25 clients at one time as recommended by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman?
Question: What would you and your party do to fix the pay problems that have arisen through the Phoenix pay system and to ensure that they never happen again? Do you agree that any damages negotiated from the Phoenix pay system are non-taxable?
Question: Do you and your party support keeping public services public? Would you and your party intend to expand privatization of public services or contracting out under the new Rehabilitation Services and Vocational Program Contract and the existing Medavie Blue Cross Contract?
Veterans Affairs Canada Offices
Question: Would you commit to maintaining the current number of Veterans Affairs Canada offices? Would you or your party intend to use contracting out as a way to once again close Veterans Affairs Canada offices?