OTTAWA — The union representing case managers at Veterans Affairs Canada is calling for an independent, external review following reports its members are struggling with excessive workloads, which are putting severely disabled veterans at risk.
The Union of Veterans' Affairs Employees made its request in a letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay this week after The Canadian Press reported this month on the large number of veterans assigned to individual case managers.
The union wants the review launched within the next two months to identify what kind of support veterans actually need — and a plan for making sure they get it, UVAE national president Virginia Vaillancourt said in an interview on Tuesday.
“If we did have some group from outside actively look at this, they may come up with additional recommendations that are going to ensure veterans are getting the services and benefits they need in a timely manner from the case managers,” she said.
Case managers help veterans with complex needs develop plans for their successful re-entry into civilian life after leaving the military for medical reasons. They are also responsible for co-ordinating medical and financial resources for that transition.
Recognizing their importance, the Liberal government promised in the 2015 federal election to reduce the number of veterans assigned to individual case managers to an average of 25 to one, after the number topped 40 to one under the Conservatives.
Six years later, Veterans Affairs says there are 476 case managers serving more than 16,000 veterans with complex needs. Yet while that works out to around 33 veterans each, those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
The department has admitted that 50 of the current case managers are temporary staff whose contracts are set to expire at the end of March — with no promises that any of them will be retained beyond that date.
It has also revealed 33 case managers are currently on assignment, sick leave or otherwise not working. Removing them from the equation means the average case manager who is working is juggling a caseload of more than 36 veterans.
The government would need at least 640 case managers — or nearly 150 more than it does now — to reach an average of 25 veterans per case manager. Yet while MacAulay has promised to hire more staff, he has refused to say how many or when.
In addition to calling for an external review to look at veterans' needs and how they can be met, the UVAE wants the government to take immediate steps to hire more case managers in places where they have on average 35 files or more.
The union also called for more support staff to take some of the administrative burden off case managers, many of whom the UVAE says are suffering from extreme stress and at risk of burning out.
Vaillancourt said the main issue isn’t that there aren’t enough qualified people to fill the positions if they are created, but that successive federal governments have failed to invest in the department’s operations.
“One of the major parts of this is the fact the government has not put the funding into Veterans Affairs on the operating side of things to ensure front-line staff are hired,” she said.
Documents tabled in the House of Commons earlier this year show the department’s internal services budget, which pays for salaries and other operating expenses, is set to drop to $80 million next year from $100 million in 2019-20.
The decline is largely attributed to an end to the funding for the 50 temporary case managers and 560 other contract staff.
MacAulay’s spokesman Cameron McNeill on Tuesday reiterated the minister’s previous promise to hire more staff, a commitment the Liberals also made during the most recent federal election.
“We know that more work needs to be done to meet the 25-1 ratio, and we fully intend to meet the commitment we made in our platform to hire more case managers,” McNeill said in an email.
“This is something we are actively working on, and will have more to say on it in the coming months.”
NDP veterans affairs critic Rachel Blaney in a statement blasted the Liberals for not doing more to support veterans, citing two recent surveys by the UVAE that showed case managers are suffering from heavy workloads, burnout and harassment on the job.
“These reports make it clear: Canadian veterans deserve far better care and support than they have received under the Trudeau government,” Blaney said. “Veterans deserve better and it is long past time for this Minister to listen to UVAE and act.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press