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Union gives failing grade to companies handling veterans rehabilitation contract

OTTAWA — The union representing workers at Veterans Affairs Canada is calling the deal to privatize rehabilitation services a failure, six months after it was implemented.
National President of the Union of Veterans' Affairs Employees, Virginia Vaillancourt, poses for a photo in Ottawa, on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. A union representing workers at Veterans Affairs Canada is calling the rehabilitation services contract a failure six months after it was implemented. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

OTTAWA — The union representing workers at Veterans Affairs Canada is calling the deal to privatize rehabilitation services a failure, six months after it was implemented.

A contract with Lifemark Health Group and WCG International Consultants was supposed to take the strain off case managers and help veterans access services. 

The two organizations formed Partners in Canadian Veterans Rehabilitation Services and were awarded a $57-million contract in July 2021 to provide rehab and vocational assistance services. The transition of files began in October 2022. 

The Union of Veterans' Affairs Employees says instead of streamlined services, case managers are dealing with more paperwork and frustrated clients.

The union issued a new "report card" Monday, saying that only the least complex files have actually been transferred and that delays in getting started have led to backlogs for veterans. 

"We have been raising concerns about this rehab contract since before it really even got implemented … and nobody's listening," said union president Virginia Vaillancourt. 

The union is pointing a finger at a lack of training in Veterans Affairs Canada's guidelines, as well as a lack of understanding of what the clients need. 

Vaillancourt said "unrealistic" turnaround times from the contractor are making it difficult for case managers to review and approve rehabilitation plans on time as they also manage their own caseloads.

The union is calling for the contract to be ended.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay was not made available to answer questions Monday. In a written statement, a spokeswoman for his office said the program is already delivering services to thousands of veterans at 800 locations, and said cancelling it would be immensely irresponsible. 

"If Veterans Affairs Canada were to cancel this contract, as the (union) has requested, more than 14,000 veteran clients would not have any access to the more than 12,000 experts in medical, rehabilitative and vocational services across the country," said Erika Lashbrook Knutson. 

"Case managers are not clinical experts in physiotherapy, psychiatry, or vocational training, and they have never directly provided these services to veterans. The work of case managers is not and has never been contracted out."

Vaillancourt said rehabilitation services used to be facilitated by case managers at the department and the services were covered by Medavie Blue Cross, a medical insurance company. Referrals to service providers must now go through Lifemark.

"And Lifemark is actually paying less than what they were getting paid through Blue Cross," she said, adding that some service providers have stopped working with veterans as a result. 

A spokeswoman for Lifemark directed questions to Veterans Affairs. The department did not respond to questions on Monday.

The Veterans Affairs Canada program is meant to help veterans and their families "transition to life after service," according to its website, by co-ordinating medical, psychosocial and vocational services for ill and injured former service members. 

Lifemark was purchased by Loblaw Companies Ltd. in May 2022. Its partner in the Veterans Affairs contract, WCG International, had been working with the department to provide vocational assistance and rehab services to veterans for over a decade. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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