OTTAWA — Frustration is growing within Canada's veterans' community as many disabled ex-soldiers continue to wait for federal support and benefits even as the government rushes to approve millions of claims for assistance related to COVID-19.
The growing frustration among veterans comes as Canada passed a new milestone Sunday, with more than half the country's roughly 76,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 now listed as recovered. More than 5,700 people have died from the respiratory illness.
It also coincides with a growing war of words between Jason Kenney and the Chinese consulate in Calgary, after the Alberta premier suggested China will soon face a "great reckoning" for downplaying the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus when it first emerged.
Veterans and their advocates have been calling for Ottawa to automatically approve roughly 44,000 claims that have been sitting in the backlog at Veterans Affairs Canada, a request that the federal government has so far rejected.
Yet many are now questioning why the government is refusing to act following reports federal officials have been told to approve payments through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit even in cases of suspected fraud or abuse.
Federal officials have suggested that roughly 200,000 of the estimated eight million CERB payments made so far have been flagged as a concern. The government has said it wanted to get money to Canadians quickly during the pandemic, and will crack down on abusers at a later date.
The purpose and legal requirements around the CERB are different from Veterans Affairs Canada's disability benefits programs, department spokesman Josh Buekert said, adding officials are looking at ways to help process disability claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are making it easier for decision makers to use available evidence to reach their decision as quickly as possible," Buekert said in an email. "We are reviewing all processes used during these challenging circumstances and will use them to continue to improve production in the future."
Frustration has been boiling over on social media and elsewhere, however, with numerous veterans demanding to know why the government can fast-track millions of claims for assistance related to COVID-19 but not those injured while serving in uniform.
"Veterans are pissed because we are always put to the back of the bus," said retired master corporal Dave Toy, who has been waiting more than 18 months for his claim for benefits related to post-traumatic stress disorder to be processed. "This is just another reason to be pissed off."
The National Council of Veteran Associations, which represents more than 60 veteran groups, has been leading calls for the government to automatically approve the outstanding applications for disability benefits from injured veterans to help them deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
Not only are approval rates for most categories of injuries — including post-traumatic stress disorder — extremely high, council chairman Brian Forbes said the pandemic has created new hurdles for processing claims because of the need for doctor's assessments and other requirements.
"The government is taking the view — and it's kind of hard to criticize — that to put people through a bureaucratic approval process would be hard to justify," Forbes said of the CERB.
"In these times, the same philosophy should apply to both. We're talking about disabled veterans, people who are in need."
Forbes did suggest the idea of automatic approvals has been gaining some traction within the department, where there have been questions about how to manage payments and the optics of clawing back money from veterans who are later found not to qualify for assistance.
Yet so far, the government has refused to pull the trigger.
"There is some movement in Veterans Affairs on what we're calling a form of automatic entitlement to try to deal with the backlog and the longstanding adjudicated delays," he said. "I'm a little biased, but I don't see disabled veterans quite in the same classification as fraud artists."
NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney said she has heard the concerns and complaints from veterans about the backlog, and that she hasn't heard any compelling reason why their applications for assistance shouldn't be automatically approved and verified afterward.
"Let's just approve," she said. "This is a group of people that have already served our country. So I would say it's probably not a high-risk group of people trying to trick the system."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press