Support network to treat ill soldiers with emphasis on post-traumatic stress

By Michael MacDonald-GLOBE & MAIL-March 3, 2009. pA8B.

HALIFAX — Defence Minister Peter MacKay rolled out a $21-million plan yesterday for a new network of military support centres, responding to reports that Canada is doing a poor job caring for sick and injured members of the Armed Forces, veterans and their families.

The eight centres, to be set up across the country before the end of the year, will ensure that no member of the Armed Forces falls through the cracks when they are wounded, get sick or fall victim to mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. MacKay said.

“There will be essentially one-stop shopping to access help from the government of Canada,” he told about 100 members of the military at Canadian Forces Base Halifax.

“This initiative will give our ill and injured the support they need to heal, to adjust and to prepare for the next phase of their lives.”

Mr. MacKay’s plan represents his response to a damning report issued in December by the military’s ombudsman, Mary McFadyen. She found that some Afghan war veterans who suffer from operational stress injuries were undiagnosed and weren’t getting the care they needed.

The assessment said 18 of the 31 recommendations made in a 2002 report on operational stress had not been fully implemented, largely because of the stigma the military culture attaches to mental-health problems.

Meanwhile, a report produced last year by a Senate committee found that there were glaring inadequacies once injured troops return home, including a variation in trauma care, depending upon the province where they’re stationed.

The Canadian military has poured more resources into mental health programs and counselling since the Afghan war became more intense in 2006.

Still, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser issued a stern rebuke to the Defence Department in 2007 over the way it has handled mental-health programs, especially the practice of outsourcing care to civilian centres.
Yesterday, Mr. MacKay said the eight Integrated Personnel Support Centres will be located in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Edmonton, Shilo, Man., Petawawa, Ont., Valcartier, Que., and Gagetown, N.B. They will be controlled by a new unit in Ottawa.

Already, there are 28 people working at the centres. Another 117 new, full-time equivalent positions will be filled this year.

“This is a first response to unify and co-ordinate the existing services, and augment those services with particular emphasis on persons suffering from post-traumatic stress and mental challenges,” Mr. MacKay said afterwards.

As well, the military will be “revitalizing” its rehabilitation program by formally creating seven “centres of excellence” across the country.

The centres are actually partnerships between Canadian Forces bases and nearby civilian hospitals and rehab centres, some of which have been operating informally for years.

A military spokesman confirmed there is no new money for this particular program.

The idea is to ensure that all soldiers, sailors and air crew with life-altering injuries or illnesses receive the same level of care, regardless of where they are stationed.

But that’s easier said than done, said Sean Bruyea, a retired air force captain who now works as an advocate for ill and injured soldiers and veterans.

“There will have to be some consistent oversight to ensure what’s promised is actually provided,” said Mr. Bruyea, who retired in 1996 after he served in the Gulf War and suffered physical and psychological damage.
Mr. Bruyea said he would like to see the military establish a transparent, independent board of civilian and military specialists that would check the quality of care being offered at these facilities.

“After 40 years of the CF continually cutting back on care, one news release and one initiative is not going to solve this problem,” he said.

He said the eight service centres don’t appear to be offering anything new and the seven centres of excellence can hardly promise a high standard of care in every region of the country.

“Will the military be in the same long lineups that all of the provinces are facing with health care?” he said.
“They may have great intentions in terms of providing great care, but they can’t force the provinces to provide care, one way or the other.”

He said it’s naive to assume smaller communities can offer the same level of care found in larger centres.
For example, the military ombudsman’s report found that the 5,000 soldiers at CFB Petawawa are served by only one psychologist and one psychiatrist. By contrast, the 4,500 troops at CFB Valcartier are served by eight psychologists and four psychiatrists.

Peter Stoffer, the NDP’s veterans affairs critic, said the Conservative government is headed in the right direction but more needs to be done, particularly for veterans.

“I give credit to the government for recognizing there are major gaps in the system when it came to these clinics across the country,” he said. “And now they’re trying to co-ordinate the effort. … That’s a good thing.”

However, Mr. Stoffer said he was disappointed to learn there are no plans for a centre in Newfoundland and Labrador, and there is nothing to address some of the financial concerns of ill and injured veterans.
Canadian Forces members get a maximum lump-sum payment of $250,000 for the most severe injuries, which would include death or the loss of a limb.

“Once that money is gone, then that’s it,” Mr. Stoffer said, adding that the military should be offering lifetime pensions for these veterans.

Last month, Mr. Stoffer held a news conference with several injured soldiers who complained about the way they have been treated.

Mr. Stoffer urged the federal Conservatives to end clawbacks of benefits while boosting the payouts given to soldiers injured in the line of duty.

In December, figures prepared for the Defence Department showed the number of wounded soldiers has climbed to over 360 as Canada entered its fourth year of fighting in southern Afghanistan.

A Senate committee report released last summer estimated that 395 soldiers have been returned home on compassionate grounds, including those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

COPYRIGHT 2009 Bell Globemedia Interactive
Byline: MICHAEL MacDONALD; The Canadian Press