Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee. Thank you for having me here today.
It's my pleasure to speak to you today about this important topic of service delivery.
My name is Debbie Lowther, and I am the chair and co-founder of VETS Canada, Veterans Emergency Transition Services. I am also the spouse of a military veteran of 15 years who was medically released in 2005. My husband and I co-founded VETS Canada in 2010.
The aim of VETS Canada is to provide assistance to veterans who are in crisis, who are at risk of homelessness, or who are already homeless.
What sets us apart from other organizations is that we don't wait for the veteran to come to us to ask for help. We go out in search of the veteran and offer them help. We're a volunteer-led organization. We have teams of volunteers in every province and major urban centre across the country, and those teams, as I said, go out into the streets conducting what we call “boots on the ground walks”. They visit the shelters, the drop-in centres, and the areas of the streets where the people who might need some help would be frequenting.
We also respond to referrals from shelters, from concerned family members, and from other organizations, including Veterans Affairs. In 2014 we were awarded a contract by the federal government, making us service providers to Veterans Affairs in the field of crisis and homeless veterans' outreach. To date, we've had the privilege of assisting over 1,200 veterans across this country.
The first thing we do when we come across a veteran who needs some help is to connect them to Veterans Affairs, because we want to make sure veterans are getting the services and benefits they may be entitled to from the department.
What does that mean? That means we deal with the department quite frequently, either on behalf of the veterans or with the veterans, because they sometimes find that process very overwhelming. Our volunteers will act as a mediator, hand-holder, or whatever the need might be.
With that frequent interaction with the department, what are we seeing? We're seeing that over the past couple of years there have been a lot of improvements with the department. We're also seeing that there is improvement still to be made.
In the past few years, the department has reduced the number of forms it takes for a veteran to apply for benefits and services, and that's been a welcome change. The department has endeavoured to reduce turnaround times in processing applications for disability benefits. The goal is 16 weeks. It's been our experience that the majority of the veterans we assist are receiving their benefits in that time frame. Over the past year, for some reason, the cases we're seeing have become increasingly complex, and it takes a little longer for those folks to get their responses.
Over the past six months, we've had the opportunity to work with some of the new Veterans Affairs case managers who have been hired, and it's been noted that with the decreased caseload, or lighter caseload, our veterans are receiving a faster response time from their case managers. For veterans who previously may have had to wait 48 to 72 hours to hear back from a case manager, we're finding that now they're getting a call back in less than 48 hours, and sometimes in less than 24 hours. We do believe that the hiring of additional case managers has been a great improvement.
It has been our experience that there are inconsistencies in how information about benefits is communicated to veterans. More often than not, the case managers are helpful and forthcoming with the information on benefits and services, but there are times, if the veterans don't know the right questions to ask, then they don't get the information, and they don't know what they're entitled to. Imagine a veteran who is struggling with PTSD, and who can barely get out of his house to go to the grocery store, trying to navigate the process of applications for benefits. We would like to see a more standardized process of case manager and client or veteran interaction, with maybe a checklist of some sort.
We're aware that the department is making efforts to provide a more seamless transition from the military by strengthening partnerships with the Department of National Defence, which is a sensible move, we feel. One issue that is frequently brought up, and probably one of the most frustrating, is the fact that when a veteran is still serving, that veteran may undergo a medical assessment by a military doctor to determine whether an injury or illness is service related. When that veteran transfers over to Veterans Affairs, he may have to be reassessed by Veterans Affairs doctors for that same condition or illness.
We've seen cases where people have been released from the military, they've been followed up by military doctors, their conditions have been determined to be a result of their service, and then they are followed up by Veterans Affairs doctors and their benefits are denied. They say that it's not service related. That's one frustration that impedes the seamless transition, we believe.
In closing, I will repeat what I said at the beginning. We've seen a lot of improvements over the last little while, but there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made. We do believe in continued consultation with community groups and veterans themselves. As Nora alluded to, we need collaboration rather than duplication, and we believe there are a lot of organizations that can work together for the betterment of our men and women who served this country. I think it's important for the department to continue to consult with the community organizations and the veterans to get the feedback they need.
I would like to thank you for having me here today.