Thursday, July 3, 2014

Serious Deterioration of Services for Veterans

Yvan Thauvette, President, Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, Public Service Alliance of Canada 

 June 3, 2014

Our union represents about 3,000 employees of whom about 2,500 work at Veterans Affairs Canada and 500 work under provincial jurisdiction at Deer Lodge Centre in Winnipeg. The vast majority of our members provide services to veterans, such as social reintegration and rehabilitation. Our members guide veterans through the bureaucracy; for example, health care differs from one province to another. One of the main things we do is help veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder which makes it very difficult for them to reintegrate into civilian life after they leave the army.

Currently, the government is getting rid of about 25 per cent of the frontline workers by closing Veterans Affairs Offices and reducing staff. Nine Veterans Affairs Offices across Canada were closed at the end of January 2014. We launched a campaign with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to defend services for veterans. There were many demonstrations across the country to oppose the closures. Our campaign had two aims: to prevent the Veterans Affairs Offices from closing and to fight the Conservative government on what they thought was their strong point. They say that they are the defenders of the veterans and we are able to prove that the opposite is true. We speak to veterans who are Conservatives and they are going to mobilize people to vote anything but Conservative. We were not successful in preventing the closure of the offices, but the campaign was very successful in mobilizing people. On November 9, more than 10 per cent of the residents of Sydney, Nova Scotia, took part in a demonstration to support the veterans and the Veterans Affairs workers.

We are doing political lobbying of not only opposition parties and MPs but of Conservatives. When we speak with Conservatives, they just repeat the message they have been given by their government that there are going to be more points of service for the veterans, even if they do not know what it means. The Conservatives say that they are streamlining services to make them more effective. Veterans for example will have access to 500-600 additional points of service through Service Canada but Service Canada is not able to help our clients. They do not have access to their files, they do not know what their problems are or the programs that Veterans Affairs Canada runs.

PSAC also represents Service Canada employees and they tell us that they can't help the veterans. Service Canada provides veterans with general information, it gives them a form to fill out or the 1-800 number to call or it sits them in front of a computer. None of this helps the veterans, especially the older ones. I have met many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who told me it took them half a day just to create their account with Veterans Affairs and a whole week to fill out their application. If they had gone to the Veterans Affairs Office, it would have taken them an hour or an hour and a half to do this.

Representatives of Veterans Affairs say that they want to provide quick answers to veterans when they first call, but this is not what is happening. It is very cumbersome, it takes a lot more time and often the veterans have to travel longer distances than before because of the office closures. When the government says that the veterans will continue to have access to home visits, it does not say that this only applies to those who have a file with a social worker and not to others. We represent roughly 200,000 veterans. Maybe 15 to 18 per cent of them are being seen by a social worker for social reintegration or rehabilitation but what about the other 180,000? There are no home visits for them anymore. They have to go to the Veterans Affairs Offices to find adequate services but many can't do it because they live in remote areas.

The services offered to veterans have greatly deteriorated. It takes a lot of time for veterans to get answers to their questions. Contacting Veterans Affairs Canada has become more and more difficult. When veterans call the 1-800 number, they cannot be sure that they are talking to somebody who works at Veterans Affairs even if the person who answers says it is Veterans Affairs. They may work for the private company Quantum, which Veterans Affairs Canada has contracted to hire people to answer phone calls from veterans. The fact is that they do not know the programs and they are not able to answer the veterans' questions.

The current government has given a lot of contracts to the private sector for jobs that used to be done by our employees. They signed a major contract with an insurance company called Medavie Blue Cross. A client is considered merely a number with an insurance company.

The work load from the Veterans Affairs Offices that have closed has been transferred to the remaining offices. Our members working in the regions tell us that they have hundreds of work orders on their desks that have not been filled because of the cutbacks in staff. It may take them six months to return phone calls from veterans. So many staff have been cut that when somebody gets sick, their work load falls to others and becomes impossible. Our members are getting sick, they are taking leaves of absence or even leaving the department because they can't take it anymore. At some point, the government is going to say that they can't provide the service any longer and they have to go to the private sector.

At the moment, we are getting ready for negotiations with the Treasury Board which will begin shortly. It is going to be difficult because the government has decided that any economic improvement we make in bargaining has to come from the department budgets.