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Injured, ill military personnel deserve an easier transition to civilian life

Gary Walbourne is the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman

On a near daily basis, Canadians read about how difficult the transition from military to civilian life can be for a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. Sadly, much of the difficulty lies in the red tape and bureaucracy that was built to support them during that transition.

For example, to be eligible for benefits and services from Veterans Affairs Canada, a current or former member must wait months for the department to decide whether their illness or injury was a result of their service. The Canadian Forces knows when, where and how the member was injured or became ill. Based on the evidence it has, the Canadian Forces decides whether a member can continue serving or should be released. It therefore raises the question: If the Forces has enough evidence to end a member's career, why is that not sufficient to determine eligibility for benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada?

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Imagine a system in which the Canadian Forces simply checks a box indicating that a member's illness or injury can be reasonably attributed to their service. Once that box is checked, Veterans Affairs immediately accepts that decision and determines what benefits and services the member is entitled to, not whether the member is entitled to them. Additionally, rather than wait for a supplementary adjudication on whether they qualify for priority status when applying for post-military employment with the federal public service, they were immediately added to the list. Two adjudications designed to determine the same outcome. This provides the members and their families peace of mind rather than profound uncertainty when considering a second career before release from the Canadian Forces.

The reality is much different. Waits for Veterans Affairs adjudications remain lengthy. In terms of determining priority hiring status for ill or injured members, the results have been dismal.

In July, only 2 per cent of decisions were rendered within the four-month service standard. Year to date, the figure is 29 per cent. These are problems that result from the systems that we have built, which means solutions can be developed. Members are potentially missing out on employment opportunities as a result of these delays.

Since 2015, through the publication of two reports and multiple appearances before parliamentary committees and media outlets, I have called for the system to be overhauled to reflect the best interests of current and former members of the Forces. Having the Forces determine whether an illness or injury is associated with a member's service is the only way to eliminate painful periods of uncertainty. This thorough review is completed by those who determine if release is appropriate for any service member. What is the point of any additional review?

Should my recommendations be accepted by this government, the 16-week standard wait for Veterans Affairs benefits and services, as well as priority hiring determinations, would be significantly reduced.

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Nothing should stand in the way of putting current and former members of the Forces first in the decision-making process; especially not the bureaucracy that created it. Standing up for your constituency and challenging the unfairness when appropriate is the role of an ombudsman. Whether to make those changes is the role of Parliament. The only people waiting for decisions are current and former members of the Canadian Forces.

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