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COLUMN: Carol Hughes on outsourcing veterans' care

End the outsourcing of Veteran’s Affairs rehabilitation and mental health services says Algoma - Manitoulin - Kapuskasing Member of Parliament
Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. File photo

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP, Carol Hughes writes a regular column about initiatives and issues impacting our community.

Canadian veterans often have a difficult time accessing mental health and rehabilitation services. Wait times for assistance can be long and accessing those services can often be confusing. However, it’s become more problematic in recent months, as Veterans Affairs has outsourced a contract to a private for-profit company that has created additional challenges for veterans attempting to access services.

In June 2021, the Liberal government signed a five-and-a-half-year,$560-million contract with Partners in Canadian Veterans Rehabilitation Services (PCVRS) to deliver rehabilitation and mental health services to Canadian veterans. PCVRS is a joint venture between Australian-owned workforce development company WCG International Consultants Ltd., and Lifemark Health Group, a health services company owned by Loblaws.

Sometime in December, veterans started receiving e-mails asking them to sign up for services with PCVRS. However, there was little clarity as to how services would be rolled out, and delays have caused some veterans to be left without clear guidelines in how to access supports from PCVRS. It has caused further confusion among older veterans as to whether they can still access supports they were previously receiving. And for new veterans, they will now be required to obtain services through PCVRS.

So how has the rollout of PCVRS gone so far?

If you were to ask veterans, mental health clinicians, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Union of Veterans’ Affairs Employees (UVAE), the answer would likely be some variation of “disastrous.” Both PSAC and UVAE have called for the contract to outsource veteran rehabilitation services with PCVRS to be cancelled.

UVAE national president Virginia Vaillancourt has recently stated “every day a veteran goes without the care they need for the psychological and physical trauma they’ve endured is a tragedy this government should be ashamed of. This contract is an unmitigated disaster and should be scrapped immediately.”

Sgt. (retired) Christopher Banks, a 20-year Canadian Forces veteran, recently stated in an article for the Hill Times that the same work could be done by Veterans Affairs staff in-house for less money and better-quality service.

Former MP and advocate from the Veterans Legal Assistance Fund Peter Stoffer has recently stated “By transferring services over to Lifemark, means that Lifemark has to make a profit. That means millions and millions of dollars that should be going into benefits for veterans will now be going into the private pocket of Galen Weston and his subsidiary companies.”

This lack of basic services for veterans is not a new phenomenon.

Some may remember that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government closed nine Veterans Affairs offices in every corner of the country during his tenure which directly impacted the ability of veterans to access mental health and rehabilitation services, creating a backlog of requests for services.

An Auditor General’s report released in 2014 said one in five ex-soldiers seeking mental health care had to wait up to eight months for a review and referral. Contrast this to the Auditor General’s report last summer that indicates that wait times have actually gotten worse, and while more staff were hired to process veterans’ requests for assistance, more veterans were also applying, which also means that the backlog of applications hasn’t actually decreased.

Reports indicate that an initial assessment with a clinician in Ontario through PCVRS will now be rushed, as they must be finalized within four to six hours, as opposed to the current in-depth process through VAC.

It is also noted that clinicians are going to be paid less for psychotherapy, which also serves to beef up the profits of PCVRS. A rational move would be to cancel the $560-million contract with PCVRS and put that money directly into Veterans Affairs Canada.

It would cost less, provide better and more stable service for veterans, and wouldn’t be lining the pockets of a company that has no experience in providing services to the people who served our country in the military. It would give mental health clinicians the ability to continue to provide good service to veterans.

Clearly outsourcing veterans’ services is not in the best interests of those who served our country. A profit motive should never be a consideration when handling their needs.