The frustration among veterans was palpable at the Armstrong Legion Friday, when military ombudsperson Col. (Ret’d) Nishika Jardine stopped by for a town hall to discuss the shortcomings of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and what can be done to make life easier for those who have served.
Jardine welcomed that frustration, saying it’s her job to hear from veterans about how the system may be failing them.
“We want to hear from you. What are your frustrations, what are the things that concern you, what’s been your experience dealing with Veterans Affairs Canada, and what can we learn?” she asked at the opening of the town hall.
Jardine kicked off the discussion with a few things she’s concerned about. The first was the backlog that exists among people waiting for an answer on their disability claim.
“The department has in fact brought that down significantly over the past while, which is fantastic … but the time it takes to adjudicate the decision is still at least three times longer on average than their service standard of 16 weeks,” she said.
Jardine then said VAC’s communications with veterans need to be in plainer language, so that letters to veterans are easier to understand.
Making the claims process easier to navigate was a theme of the town hall. Jardine asked the packed crowd how many have had issues navigating the VAC website. Many raised their hands.
“Whatever the design is, it doesn’t work,” she said. “I’m asking for (the website) to be changed, so that it’s straightforward.”
She added there are problems with the internal review and appeal process.
“What struck me early on was 75 to 80 per cent of these appeals are denied. Well what’s the point of that? There’s no real right of appeal here if the vast majority of them they’re just going to say no,” Jardine said.
One veteran spoke up to say he has the impression that VAC feels veterans are asking too much, and he feels ignored as a result.
“We are put on the back burner, everything we do,” he said.
“We talk about frustration, I can hear it in your voice,” Jardine responded. “And I’ve heard it countless times over in the time that I’ve been in this position.”
Jardine said the disability claim form that veterans have to fill out needs “a complete revamping,” with instructions that tell veterans to write out their full story to have the best chance of having their claim approved on the first go-around.
One veteran said they receive very little support through the B.C. medical system to get some of the testing done that’s required for a disability claim. Jardine said the problem of not getting a diagnosis in a timely manner is an issue that goes beyond the scope of Veterans Affairs and includes everyone in Canada.
Another veteran expressed dismay at the fact that some veterans end up giving up on the disability claim process entirely because there are too many barriers.
“I understand, and I get it, and I’m worried about the people who give up, who do need help and aren’t getting it,” Jardine responded.
Another person said she has worked on behalf of retired veterans trying to get benefits for them. She said she called the VAC Kelowna office and the person who answered the phone immediately told her the veteran doesn’t have a claim, without a proper review.
“I’m gobsmacked. I don’t even know what to say,” Jardine said before asking the lady to have the veteran call her office.
Spallumcheen mayor Christine Fraser was at the town hall and said having an advocate to help with a veteran’s case is a good way to ensure a positive outcome, as she did for her uncle who served with the air force.
“You need a navigator to help you work your way through the bureaucracy,” Jardine agreed. “Your family members are fortunate to have you.”
After the town hall, Jardine said if veterans were made to understand why it’s taken so long for their claims to get through, or why their claims were denied, that would help with the frustration.
She said the issue she heard repeatedly at the meeting had to do with the link between the VAC disability claims and benefits and the need for medical information from the healthcare system.
“There’s medical questionnaires that veterans might need to get a physician to fill out, (but) it’s a challenge because as every Canadian is experiencing, it’s so hard to get primary health care.”
Jardine also visited the Army Navy Air Force hall in Vernon Saturday before heading back to Ottawa.