OTTAWA — Injured Canadian veterans are being forced to wait on average twice as long as promised to find out whether they qualify for financial help from the government, even as the backlog of unprocessed applications for assistance continues to grow.
Veterans are told the vast majority will know within 16 weeks whether they qualify for compensation and assistance for service-related injuries after filing an application with the federal government.
Yet the average wait time at the end of April was 34.5 weeks — an increase of nearly two weeks since the start of the year and more than double what has been promised.
Veterans Affairs did not say how much the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the problem. The department has said officials are continuing to process applications while working at home due to the crisis.
But the federal government has long been accused of causing added frustration and stress to many injured veterans because of the growing wait times, which have in turn contributed to a growing backlog of requests for help.
More than 46,200 applications were in the backlog at the end of December, according to Veterans Affairs. That represented an increase of 1,600 from September and 6,000 from March.
The number, which is expected to only increase due to the pandemic, includes more than 20,000 applications that the department says are "incomplete" and awaiting further information.
Veterans' advocacy groups in recent months have been asking the Liberal government to automatically approve all applications for assistance from injured ex-soldiers and conduct an audit after the fact to catch any illegitimate claims.
They have specifically said many veterans are facing a hard time collecting all the necessary information due to various lockdowns, and noted such an approach has been adopted for some of the federal emergency programs set up due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government has so far resisted such calls.
Then-veterans ombudsman Guy Parent blasted the federal government for the wait times and backlog in September 2018, at which point the average turnaround time for disability-benefits applications was between 23 and 29 weeks.
"Now is the time to ensure that the planning and resources required to deliver disability benefits, both equitably and in a timely manner, are in place," the ombudsman's report said.
"Lengthy turnaround times for disability benefit decisions is about more than monetary compensation for pain and suffering. Many applicants have unmet health needs that can be exacerbated by waiting for adequate treatment."
The federal government actually considered in 2018 whether to extend the 16-week target, saying it wanted to provide veterans with a more "realistic" idea of when their application would be processed.
But it abandoned the controversial plan last year following criticism that Veterans Affairs was trying to move its own goalposts.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press