I have never experienced anything but professionalism and understanding from any front line worker at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and I certainly have no gripe with the thankless job many of them have had to do. Unfortunately that’s not the same for the organization as a whole; in fact there are many problems with VAC but I think it serves to better your understanding if you first understand what VAC is and isn’t. The first thing I think the average Canadian needs to understand is that VAC does not treat veterans nor is it responsible for the treatment of veterans. It seems whenever veterans and VAC are discussed with regard to the treatment of veterans, an expectation that the department is responsible for treatment is always at play. The latest buzz phrase is “duty of care” So the first thing in understanding this conflict is that VAC does not treat veterans. In fact VAC is more of an actuary, a bureaucratic entity that administrates a budget to facilitate the flow of payment for pensions and expenses, related to veterans’ retirement and health care, that’s all.
Here’s the break down. A veteran must apply for a medical pension for an injury or illness related to service. Then wait for months as their case is deliberated by the bureaucratic process. When I applied 25 years ago this took over 18 months. It now takes 4 months (what it is in reality varies on the complexity of the claim) and if you complain someone will readily remind you that it used to take 18 months. Yes, knowing this is always helpful (or is it?) and makes every veteran remember it can be worst. In fact the process is very adversarial, you must prove the injury or illness is service related. Originally when the process was initiated, the rule of thumb was that if it could be service related then VAC must error on the side of the veteran. That changed over time and an appeal process which already existed was expanded. Today with every application the appeal process is expected. Very few claims today appear to be approved without appeal, if not for the pension itself then for the percentage of injury. I know of no veteran that has not had to go through the appeals process, though I am sure there has to be those that exist.
So once you have a pension then all is rosy correct? Well not really. Now that you have a base medical pension, you can apply for programs you are entitled to under your approved pension. Oh and yes if you are denied the programs you can appeal that as well. But wait it gets better. To access many of these approved benefits you must also get approval. Yes that’s right for example, I have coverage for orthopedic devices to assist me in daily living, but I must submit for approval to receive reimbursement for the expenses, the same if I have to pay out of pocket for a specialist, therapy, or any other expected expense not covered by my provincial health care plan. Oh and yes if you are wondering, I can appeal that as well if I am denied. In fact the entire system’s problems (in my opinion) of the veterans’ application process are about those who review the appeals process having sufficient work to justify their bureaucratic positions. After all these positions as well are budgeted items for VAC.
The real problem with the system is that there is no advocate for veterans with regard to changing rules or creating a system that meets the veterans’ needs without the adversarial approach. Yes we have an ombudsman, but they cannot effect change any more than one of the adhoc veterans advisory boards can. They can make recommendations or highlight problems, but they have no authority to make change. Any recommendations are brought to the government in power and filtered through the agendas of the government of the day. No one who speaks for veterans can affect change at any level. Except maybe the Minister of Veterans Affairs, oh wait he is the representative of the Government of the day as well isn’t he, not the representative of veterans, my bad. So how do veterans get representation as veterans with VAC … we don’t. And unlike all other Canadians, we cannot file suit against the government to hold them accountable either as we forfeited that right when we signed on as soldiers. To be fair VAC has hired more low level workers and given them more discretion to spend small amounts without having to seek approval, and these front line workers are second to none. They work hard to get veterans what they need and are entitled to. But in a bureaucratic system such as this one even they cannot talk to the decision makers any more than a veteran can. This is by far the most insulated and controlled entity I have ever experienced.
It used to be in the military that if I had a grievance I could take it to my Commanding Officer and have my grievance heard. He may tell me I was full of shit and to get back to work or I would spend a day in cells, or listen and correct a wrong which I identified. But either way the Commanding Officer always listened and I had the opportunity to say what I thought to his face, even if I didn’t always like the outcome. The hardest part of being a veteran is having an organization that does not represent your interests and will not take the opportunities it has been presented with to engage in face to face meaningful change. Not discussion, but change. After 150 years of historical neglect you would think that someone within the bureaucratic ranks of this organization would understand the veteran culture and meet its veterans with dignity and not bureaucracy.