By LAURA PAYTON, Parliamentary Bureau
OTTAWA – Veterans of every war from the Second World War to Afghanistan need better service from the department of veterans affairs, starting with leadership from the minister, critics said Monday.
The department makes it too hard to get coverage for everything from prescription drugs to hearing aids and pension benefits, NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer says.
Veterans must prove their need stems from injuries they got while serving, but many don’t report injuries at the time because they don’t want to leave their colleagues to get medical attention and recover.
“The problem is the current government and the legislative bureaucracy within that department, starting at the minister’s level and through the veterans review and appeal board, is stifling,” Stoffer said.
“What kind of country are we when we have to tell veterans they have to go to a food bank to get help?” he said, citing a veterans-only food bank in Calgary, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper held a photo op last year, and a homeless shelter in British Columbia for veterans.
“These are our heroes,” he said.
Sean Bruyea, a veterans’ advocate and Gulf War vet, is frustrated by what he sees as “cavalier disregard” by civil servants.
“Why is it that veterans must stand here, month after month, year after year, pleading for Canada to pay the debt owed to our brave men and women, when so many have already fulfilled their contract by suffering lifelong disabilities or tragically losing their lives?” he said.
Canada has 700,000 veterans, including spouses and former RCMP officers, Stoffer said, many who can’t access benefits.
Kim Coles, vice-president of the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, says she’s concerned about recent reports Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn wants to cut staff at the department. Blackburn has said the department will need less staff because elderly vets are dying.
Coles said the department now has 4,200 staff, with 900 planning to retire in the next five years.
Blackburn said in a statement Monday night that the department is changing to accommodate the modern day veterans who will outnumber traditional veterans by nearly three to one by 2015.
“Some of our offices may expand, and in some areas, we may need to hire new employees. Our overall focus is to ensure staff are in the locations where they are most needed,” he said, adding they’ll also simplify policies to improve service.