Evidence of meeting #21 for Veterans Affairs in the 44th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was report.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Karen Hogan  Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General
Martin Dompierre  Assistant Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General
Isabelle Marsolais  Director, Office of the Auditor General

October 6th, 2022 / 4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Thank you.

I really appreciate your being here and having the opportunity to review this report. I want to be positive and say that this can be dealt with, but the seven years is very discouraging.

I'd like to refer to 2.20 in your report. In 2014, you published the audit report, “Mental Health Services for Veterans”. You indicated in it that in a one-year period, 75% of decisions on first applications for mental health conditions were processed within the 16 weeks. For the current audit—also a one-year period, from October 2020 to September 30, 2021—you found about 41% of decisions on first applications for mental health conditions were processed within the 16 weeks.

I appreciate what you're saying. In fairness, twice as many were processed, but the number of applications was three times as many. This is looking at—I think—the reality that Afghanistan in 2014 was no longer a theatre, and veterans were coming out of the system of 14 years. We know from what we hear at this committee that it takes those who become veterans and are no longer part of the armed forces a few years to decide that they're going to deal with these things.

I can see that as a reality. However, this is where we are right now, and the numbers continue to grow, so there wasn't that foresight in realizing what they were going to be dealing with as the younger veterans came online.

It's very clear from what I'm seeing from you that temporary funding needs to be permanent funding. Temporary employees.... We need more permanent employees. This is a very challenging job, with expectations of people who are trying to process this very complicated business of meeting the needs of veterans.

You're also saying the data system is weak. I noticed in reference to your recommendation 2.52 that Veterans Affairs indicated they're working on it. They realized in 2019 that there was a problem implementing it. They were in the early stages of maturity, which I think means “not working really well yet”. They also indicated that they're switching platforms and that the decommissioning of the old one will take place in about five years. This problem isn't going to go away easily.

I want to share one thing with you and then get your feedback.

This report is to September 2021, and we are now aware that in April 2022, the department instituted a new policy to issue funding for mental health services upon application. In other words, leave all that paperwork and let's get this money where it needs to go. When we're talking about mental health, that is ground zero for so many of the problems that our veterans are facing, so they said provide the funding upon application, and sort the paperwork out after.

This is going to give the impression that there is an increase in faster processing, because there are zero weeks. However, at the same time, I applaud it and wonder what you think about looking at all of these different lines of service that they need.

Is it time to say, “Look, for every application that has come in on anything, we should trust our veterans to know their conditions. Deal with this backlog, get people in there who are going to serve long-term, and provide the efficiencies that we need to be able to serve our veterans well”?

4:35 p.m.

Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General

Karen Hogan

There is a lot in there that I'd like to try to address, but I want to start with paragraph 2.20. That's exactly why we put the numbers of the files. We were looking for a positive before, and I said there are some improvements. A positive here is that, yes, more files were treated, but there was such a large increase in demand that it put more things in the backlog as well.

There was recognition in our report that the department has some information about how many types of conditions are traditionally validated and then funding is given. When it comes to mental health, I believe that is one that was up there, and they know that a significant portion is awarded some sort of benefit. That is a solution to get funding into the hands of veterans sooner, because the long wait times have a direct impact on their well-being.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Exactly. The sanctuary trauma is huge.

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

We'll now go to Mrs. Rechie Valdez, for five minutes, please.

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Rechie Valdez Liberal Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

I would like to thank the Auditor General and her team for their hard work in producing this report, and for providing it to the committee today.

I just want to clarify. The report says, “We analyzed files for which a decision was made during the 18‑month period from 1 April 2020 to 30 September 2021.”

Is that correct? Is that your reporting time period?

4:35 p.m.

Assistant Auditor General, Office of the Auditor General

Martin Dompierre

Yes, that is the audit period.

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Rechie Valdez Liberal Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

Thank you.

Can you confirm the date that you did the analysis? I mean, did you pull files from that time period, or were you doing the analysis in real time during that time period?

4:35 p.m.

Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General

Karen Hogan

We received full access to the database. Our audit work started after that time period. We gathered evidence all the way up until January 31, 2022, related to the time period of April 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021.

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Rechie Valdez Liberal Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

The reason I'm asking is that when I think about April 1, I was about to launch something that I was working on. That March, my daughter was supposed to start kindergarten. She wasn't able to because of the pandemic. The reason I'm reflecting on this time period is that I've spoken to many organizations in Mississauga—Streetsville that struggled during that time. Our lives were completely disrupted. It's bringing me really bad flashbacks right now.

When I'm thinking about that time when you were observing the team, and what they would have been going through, going through a lockdown, trying to figure out staffing shortages, we all know what that was like. It was a tough experience.

I see your data. It's telling, right?

What can you say about the process of reviewing these files? You asked questions during that time about what the staff went through, because you had to perform current observations, but you were also looking back at a very tough time in our pandemic.

4:35 p.m.

Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General

Karen Hogan

I believe that we actually saw an improvement in the number of applications processed in that time frame, during the pandemic, partially because there was a decline in the number of applications submitted during the pandemic. We considered whether or not there was a reduction there, but we actually saw an improvement in the closing and processing of applications just at the start of the pandemic.

I would point you to exhibit 2.4. We divided up our 18-month period of data into six-month chunks. We looked at the first six months, from April 1, 2020 to September 30, 2020. We did the same thing for 2021, just to see if there would be an improvement. What we saw, if you look at the median, was that it actually got much better. With the files that were further down, the extension went even longer. There was some improvement, yet other files waited longer.

It was really hard to know if it was timing, if it was data or if it was application. There is a need to have a better handle on the information and where the bottlenecks are.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Rechie Valdez Liberal Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

Thank you. I just want to make a comment. The recommendations you made regarding the data.... Obviously, whenever we have better data, it's easier for you to measure the service levels, etc. I appreciate your recommendations around that.

You suggested that VAC and the RCMP work together more closely. Can you clarify in what ways they could do better? You kind of touched on it, but could you elaborate a bit on those details?

4:40 p.m.

Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General

Karen Hogan

Absolutely. There are two areas. Some is sharing medical information, which needs to be done in a timelier way. There are service standards, but oftentimes they are not met in sharing medical information. That's a really key step in getting to the place where you declare an application is complete and you can actually start processing it.

The second area has to do with funding, because Veterans Affairs receives funding from the RCMP in order to process RCMP applications. It puts aside a dedicated unit to deal with only RCMP applications, but it was just not able to keep up with the volume.

They need to work better together to get the right funding and to understand the application volumes that are coming, so there's progress toward meeting service standards.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Rechie Valdez Liberal Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

Thank you.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Thank you, Mrs. Valdez, and thank you, Ms. Hogan.

Now let's go for a subsequent round of questions.

I'd like to invite Mrs. Anna Roberts, for five minutes, please.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Anna Roberts Conservative King—Vaughan, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you very much for all the hard work you've done.

Before I dig into my comments, I'd like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. It's a time of the year when I have to do a lot of reflection. One of the things I reflect on is how to protect the people who protect us.

Recently I've had the pleasure of meeting with numerous veterans who shared their stories with me, and I will tell you that it was very emotional. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house.

One of the things they mentioned was that they felt that Canada let them down, that there was no support for them. As soon as they left their posts, they were abandoned.

I spoke with one particular gentleman extensively and in private. I promised not to use his name. I'm going to keep it confidential, as he requested. He was on suicide watch. His friend wasn't so lucky; he waited 17 months and then gave up.

The individual I'm speaking about was encouraged not to give up. He decided to seek private help, which he did. Through the generosity of the community, they were able to raise money to send him to a program that was able to help him understand that his life was valued.

Here is my question. It's been seven years. When we go to the hospital and we are in danger, I'd like to think we would get immediate attention. Do you think that by continuing...? It's like doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We're not getting it. We have funded. We have given them money. There is no accountability, as far as I can see from this report, to help us understand what we need to do to change it. How do we make a difference so that we can encourage these veterans to believe that we're not abandoning them?

4:40 p.m.

Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General

Karen Hogan

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, that is a real consequence of it taking so long to get benefits to veterans. They feel a lack of respect for their service, and sadly, there are some terrible consequences, as you've outlined.

What can the department do differently? I agree with you. I'm a huge proponent for.... You can't keep repeating the same thing and hoping that the outcome will be different, so it's really about doing something differently.

The department launched, as we mentioned, 16 initiatives to try to improve its processing. It set targets for two. You track. You measure only what you set out to track. If you don't set any targets, then you won't know whether you are achieving what you set out to do. I really think it's about doing things differently.

I can't tell the department how to run itself day to day, but it is clear that something needs to improve, and I don't believe it's just changing the service standard. I think it's about actually figuring out the issues and tackling them one at a time in order to get there.

Another member mentioned a possible solution, but I'm not a medical professional, and I don't have all the information that the department has. They really do need to sit down and find creative, maybe out-of-the-box solutions, rather than just repeating the same things.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Anna Roberts Conservative King—Vaughan, ON

I'm trying not to keep my private hat on; I was in private industry. If I were given a budget to work with, my boss would expect results. In order to prove my results, I would have to have data. I would also have an independent eye overseeing my performance. Do you think this would help, if we were to have someone on a more regular basis to analyze the backlog, so that this situation wouldn't continue to occur?

4:45 p.m.

Auditor General of Canada, Office of the Auditor General

Karen Hogan

I'm 100% there with you on data. You need it. You need disaggregated data—they could do a better job there too—in order to help identify areas to target and to support different approaches.

As for an independent oversight, every department has an internal audit shop they can turn to, and every department should be able to get that external help if they need it.

I think there are lots of ways that should be explored by the organization.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Anna Roberts Conservative King—Vaughan, ON

If we—

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

I'm sorry, Ms. Roberts, that's time.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Anna Roberts Conservative King—Vaughan, ON

Oh. I didn't see the red card. I'm sorry. I should pay more attention. I apologize.

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

Mr. Tolmie used to look at me to see if I was using it.

4:45 p.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Emmanuel Dubourg

I'd like to invite Mr. Sean Casey to go ahead for five minutes, please.

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

The audit period for this study was an 18-month period that ended in September 2021. Is that right? Everything that's in the report is basically a snapshot in time that's now a year ago.