Column: Veterans minister an ocean away amid criticism

Harper 02.JPGby Tim Harper – Toronto Star

The day before auditor general Michael Ferguson exposed for Canadians the government’s slow and shoddy treatment of veterans seeking mental health help, the minister responsible, Julian Fantino, was in the neighbourhood.

His department appears to be fuelled by molasses, but Fantino can act in a timely fashion. By the time Ferguson laid out the problems in chapter and verse, the veterans affairs minister was in Italy.

Bad timing, said his office.

Fantino was marking the 70th anniversary of Canadian participation in the Italian campaign, a sojourn made every five years in late November or early December, or, in this case, when the auditor general is frying your department.

No one was saying whether it was suggested Fantino remain for a day and take the heat or whether there was an implicit view that the Harper government could handle it better with the minister commemorating a campaign which cost nearly 6,000 Canadian lives, an ocean away.

In recent days, in anticipation of this auditor general report, the government has been cynically sprinkling money on veterans – $200 million on mental health clinics announced Sunday in Halifax, another $5 million for the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research announced by Health Minister Rona Ambrose Monday.

Before that, Fantino had largely left his parliamentary secretary, Brampton MP Parm Gill, and then Prime Minister
Stephen Harper to try to explain why $1.13 billion in allotted spending for veterans has been allowed to lapse since Harper took office.

Almost a third of that lapsed funding came over the past two years when the government was fixated on balancing the budget.

Tuesday, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney answered for shortcomings in Fantino’s department.

Ferguson found Veterans Affairs doesn’t even bother trying to determine if what it is providing actually helps veterans.

Many are waiting eight months to learn if they are eligible for mental health disability benefits.For some who are first denied, then successful on appeal, the wait can be years.

The audit pointed to delays veterans endure in getting records transferred from National Defence, a wait that can take four months which only starts another four-month period before a decision is made.

In order to find whether one is eligible for disability benefits, the veteran must complete an application, a four-page “quality of life” questionnaire, detailed information about claimed operational stress injuries including dates, circumstances, medical treatment, military occupation codes, duties and times spent on location.

Ferguson found as of March 31 of this year, 15,000 war service veterans, Canadian Armed Forces veterans and personnel still serving were eligible for mental health support.

Veterans Affairs said less than 2 per cent of its clients in 2002 had mental health conditions. Today that number is almost 12 per cent.

Almost a quarter of the 15,385 veterans who applied for mental health benefits between 2006 and 2014 were denied.
In the eight-year period audited, 65 per cent of veterans who appealed a decision to deny them disability benefits were successful. Most waited six months to three years for a favourable opinion but 128 waited longer, up to almost seven years.

It bears repeating: Over the past decade, 128 members of the regular forces and 32 members of the reserve have taken their own lives.

Veterans who come to the media or those chosen as their spokespersons do not always make their cases in the most eloquent fashion. They are frustrated, they can appear angry or confrontational.
We always understood this frustration, but now Ferguson has put numbers to it. And he studied the program from the veterans’ perspective.

Add to that the frustration of dealing with Fantino, a man who does not demonstrate the empathy needed for the post.
In the past he has snapped at elderly, medal-laden veterans, fabricated union conspiracies and walked away from the wife of a veteran pleading for help.

Fantino shows no contrition, only combativeness and a talent for reading talking points in the House of Commons.
There is an old baseball adage that holds if you put a substandard fielder on the diamond, the ball will quickly find him.

In politics the same holds true. Put a substandard minister in your cabinet and trouble will quickly find him or her.
Even if you can’t find him on a day for him to stand up.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright: 2014 – Torstar Syndication Services

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