Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our audit work relating to the committee's study of service delivery to veterans.
Joining me at the table are Joe Martire, principal, and Dawn Campbell, director, responsible for audits of Veterans Affairs Canada, and National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
For the benefit of new members, I would like to briefly explain the types of audits we are presenting to you today, which are performance audits.
Performance audits examine whether government programs are being managed with due regard for economy, efficiency, and environmental impact. We also look to see if there are means in place to measure the effectiveness of programs. However, while we may comment on policy implementation, we do not comment on the merits of policy, itself.
Since 2012, we have conducted two performance audits that focused on selected services and benefits provided to veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada was also part of a third audit that examined the delivery of online services by federal organizations.
In the fall of 2012, we reported on how National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada managed selected programs, services and benefits to support eligible ill and injured Canadian Forces members and veterans in the transition to civilian life. We did not look at whether Canadian Forces members and veterans had received all the services and benefits for which they were eligible. Neither did we examine the fairness of departmental services and benefits available, nor the quality of medical treatment and care provided.
There are a variety of support programs, benefits and services in place to help ill and injured members of the military make the transition to civilian life. However, we found that understanding how the programs worked and accessing them was often complex, lengthy and challenging.
The lack of clear information about programs and services, the complexity of eligibility criteria, and the dependence on paper-based systems were some of the difficulties expressed by both clients and staff.
We also found inconsistencies in how individual cases were managed, as well as problems in the sharing of information between the two departments. As a result, forces members and veterans did not always receive services and benefits in a timely manner, or at all.
We found that the interdepartmental governance framework to coordinate, harmonize, and communicate the various programs, services, and benefits available to ill and injured forces members and veterans needed strengthening.
National Defence and Veterans Affairs accepted all 15 of our recommendations, which included streamlining their processes to make programs more accessible for ill and injured forces members and veterans.
In our fall 2014 report, we reported on mental health services for veterans. As of March 2014, about 15,000 veterans were eligible to receive mental health support from Veterans Affairs Canada through the disability benefits program. The proportion of the department's disability benefits clients with mental health conditions had increased from less than 2% in 2002 to almost 12% in 2014.
Our objective was to determine whether Veterans Affairs Canada had facilitated timely access to services and benefits for veterans with mental illness. We focused on the timeliness of eligibility decisions made by the department. We did not assess the appropriateness of the decisions made or the quality of care received.
For eligible veterans, the department paid for various mental health services that were not covered by provincial health care plans. These services included specialized psychological care, residential treatment, and some prescription medications.
We found that Veterans Affairs Canada had put in place important mental health supports. These included operational stress injury clinics, a 24/7 telephone service, and the Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. However, the department was not doing enough to facilitate veterans' timely access to mental health benefits and services.
The rehabilitation program provides access to mental health care support for those veterans who are having difficulty transitioning to civilian life. Eligibility requirements are less stringent than those of the disability benefits program, but treatments and benefits end once a veteran completes the program. We found that Veterans Affairs Canada was meeting its service standards for providing timely access to mental health services through the rehabilitation program.
The disability benefits program provides lifelong access to benefits and requires that veterans provide evidence that they have a permanent mental health condition that was caused or aggravated by military service.
We found from the veterans' perspective that about 20% had to wait more than eight months from the first point of contact for the department to confirm their eligibility to access the specialized mental health services paid for by the department.
As in 2012, we found that a complex application process, delays in obtaining medical records from National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, and long wait times to access mental health care professionals in stress injury clinics continued to be some of the factors that slow down the decision as to whether veterans are eligible for support provided through the disability benefits program.
In addition, we noted that 65% of veterans who challenged denial-of-eligibility decisions for disability benefits were successful. While the department knew that most successful challenges rely on new information or testimony, it had not analyzed how the process could be improved to obtain this information prior to rendering decisions upon first application.
Mr. Chair, Veterans Affairs Canada agreed with our recommendations, and following our report, produced an action plan with implementation deadlines ranging from December 2014 to March 2016.
Lastly, in the fall of 2013, we examined whether the online services offered by some federal organizations, including Veterans Affairs Canada, were client-focused and supported by service delivery strategies with defined and measured benefits. We did not audit service standards.
We found that the government had introduced services to enable individuals to interact online with departments securely. However, multiple steps were required to set up a secure account and then enrol in a program. For example, a retired veteran wishing to interact with the Government of Canada online to access benefits and report taxes first had to set up a secure account and then follow different enrolment processes with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency, or CRA.
While a veteran would have had immediate access to a Veterans Affairs Canada account, the wait time to receive separate security codes in the mail from Service Canada and CRA was 5 to 10 days.
Mr. Chair, we hope the findings in these audits will be useful to the committee in its study. I should note, however, that we have not done other audit work since our reports were presented to Parliament; therefore, we cannot comment on progress the departments have made since then. We encourage your committee to ask department officials what progress they have made toward implementing our recommendations.
Lastly, the committee may be interested to know that on May 3 we will present a report to Parliament on the drug benefits program provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
This concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.