OTTAWA — The federal government is being criticized for not doing enough to help disabled veterans as new figures appear to confirm fears that COVID-19 has made it more difficult for them to apply for financial assistance.
The figures from Veterans Affairs Canada show 8,154 veterans applied for disability benefits during the first three full months of the pandemic, which was about half the normal number of applications.
The sharp drop helped the department make progress on the backlog of more than 40,000 requests for federal assistance waiting to be processed, which has been growing for the past few years.
The backlog stood at 45, 000 files on June 30, down from 49,000 at the end of March.
Yet the fact there was half the normal number of applications almost certainly wasn't because there was half the need for help among Canada's veterans' community.
The government was warned in the spring that many former service members were having a hard time getting the necessary paperwork to apply for financial compensation and benefits because of COVID-19.
That included obtaining a doctor's report confirming the extent of the veteran's injuries and that they were related to their service in uniform, as many doctors were limiting their work due to the pandemic.
Veterans Affairs on Sunday acknowledged the challenges posed by the pandemic when asked whether it played a part in fewer veterans applying for assistance.
"We speculate that it is very likely that the pandemic did impact the number of veterans applying for benefits during the quarter," Veterans Affairs spokesman Josh Bueckert said in an email.
"COVID-19 challenges may have made it more difficult for veterans to apply, such as gathering the necessary supporting information required for their individual applications."
One of those raising the alarm in Ottawa in the spring was Brian Forbes, chairman of the National Council of Veterans Associations, which represents more than 60 veterans groups in Canada.
Forbes expressed frustration Sunday about knowing some injured veterans who haven't been unable to apply for federal assistance because they are still waiting to meet a doctor.
"The reason the new applications are down is because advocates like ourselves are facing the reality that without medical evidence, they're not going to give us a decision," he said.
"So we hold back on the application in order to wait for the medical evidence, which is very difficult to get today, worse now with this second spike, because doctors just aren't in a position to give medical reports."
The fear is some at-risk veterans are being prevented from accessing vital financial support, particularly at a time when many Canadians are struggling to make ends meet due to the pandemic.
Veterans Affairs said it is giving veterans more time to provide medical reports to back up their claims and any other missing information, and that it can fast-track claims from those identified as most at risk.
Forbes instead repeated past calls for the department and government to reduce the barrier to applying by lowering the burden of proof on veterans who request financial assistance.
He also urged the government to start automatically approving requests for assistance to ensure veterans get help rather than leaving files in the queue for months and years, with spot audits to dissuade cheaters.
"Until you've got this entitlement decision, you can't get health care or treatment benefits for your concerns," Forbes said.
"Veterans are in a precarious state sometimes and they need that benefit. And you can imagine the impact of waiting for that financial security on your overall well-being. It's pretty hard to move forward when you're worried about money coming in the door."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press