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Rehab contract sparks fresh battle between veterans and the Liberal government

Union of Veterans Affairs Employees says major issues remain
Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence Lawrence MacAulay rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, March 25, 2022. A union representing thousands of Veterans Affairs Canada employees is asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to replace MacAulay.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

A multimillion-dollar contract between Ottawa and a private company around the provision of mental and physical health services for veterans is sparking a new fight between the Liberal government and Canada’s community of veterans.

The contract had already been heavily criticized by the union representing Veterans Affairs Canada employees, including hundreds of case managers charged with helping the most ill and injured recover from their service-related wounds.

But now others, including veterans and frontline health-care professionals, are also starting to speak up with questions and concerns about the deal.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay has repeatedly defended the $570-million contract with Partners in Canadian Veterans Rehabilitation Services, saying it will ultimately deliver better services to former service members.

Yet officials have also confirmed the rollout of the PCVRS’s services is taking longer than expected, with the second phase now delayed.

Officials say they are taking their time to get things right, but critics say the whole enterprise is in trouble.

PCVRS, which is a joint venture between Toronto-based private health-care company Lifemark Health Group and an Australian-owned job training firm known as WCG Services, referred questions to Veterans Affairs.

The government is now facing calls to tear up the contract amid broader warnings from the union and its newfound allies about the privatization of veterans’ care.

Awarded to PCVRS in June 2021, the contract came into effect last November and involves the company connecting veterans to physical, mental and occupational rehabilitation clinics and providers in their local communities.

Veterans Affairs says the deal replaces two previous contracts, one for the provision of physical and mental rehabilitation and the other for job training. Officials say the new deal will save veterans and overworked case managers time and energy.

The department also insists that the role of case managers, who are responsible for helping the most ill and injured veterans come up with and follow plans for successfully transitioning into civilian life, will remain largely unchanged.

In fact, it says that the contract will ease the administrative burden on the department’s 450 case managers, most of whom continue to struggle with large caseloads despite repeated government promises to address the problem.

Yet those reassurances have done little to assuage the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, while a growing number of veterans and health-care providers are starting to speak out as well.

On Feb. 2, the union hosted a one-day conference in Ottawa involving former service members, veterans’ organizations and medical professionals whose stated aim was to discuss ways to address the many challenges facing the community.

Those include ongoing delays and backlogs in the processing of disability claims from veterans, the need for better training for health-care providers and Veterans Affairs staff, and gaps in benefits and services.

“Are we just going to talk through the same things repeatedly with nothing happening and no change?” said Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors, which provides mental-health programs for veterans, first responders and families.

“The excitement and energy in that room today for people, either in person or online, around coming together as one to effect change was a huge positive takeaway.”

Many participants had also been invited due to their concerns and personal experiences with the PCVRS contract. Among them was retired sergeant Chris Banks, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan before being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I was told I would get a call in (from the company) in early January. It’s now February,” Banks said.

“I do not have any faith that they are ready to tackle the challenge they have signed themselves up for. And I do not have any faith that they care about the welfare of veterans. They care about their profit.”

The lack of information and understanding about the new arrangement has emerged as a common theme, with the union, veterans and health-care providers also complaining about a lack of consultation before the deal was drawn up.

The government has said it consulted stakeholders, but those discussions took place between January and May 2022 — six months after PCVRS was awarded the contract.

Psychotherapist Alisha Henson, who works with veterans and their families in the Ottawa Valley, said the new arrangement took mental-health providers in her area by surprise.

“People who have been doing this work way longer than I have had zero understanding of it and didn’t even know it was coming,” Henson said on the sidelines of the union-organized conference.

While PCVRS has since asked her to join its network of health-care providers, which Veterans Affairs says includes 9,000 professionals in 600 clinics across the country, Henson said she has many unanswered questions and concerns.

Henson and nearly two dozen other mental-health providers from her area recently released an open letter laying out numerous “red flags” about the arrangement, based on their interactions with Lifemark, in particular.

Those include added administrative requirements on providers, uncertainty over what happens if those now working with veterans don’t want to join PCVRS and reductions on current remuneration rates and assessment times.

Henson and the others also flagged what they saw as Lifemark’s failure “to consider the complex nature of this client population” by failing to mention “trauma” or “PTSD” in documents sent to practitioners asking them to join PCVRS.

“We’re working with veterans. These people have complex trauma, and there’s not one trauma word in this document,” Henson told The Canadian Press.

For its part, the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees alleges that key responsibilities are being taken from case managers. Not only is this hurting the relationship between case managers and veterans, it says, but the deal is also reducing accountability and adding bureaucracy.

Veterans started being transitioned over to PCVRS in November, but the department has confirmed that the second phase of the rollout that was supposed to start on Feb. 3 has been delayed.

“We consulted with VAC operations and PCVRS and decided to modify the rollout schedule to make sure phase A participants are fully transitioned over before continuing with phase B,” said Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre.

The union’s national president Virginia Vaillancourt, who has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fire MacAulay and cancel the PCVRS contract, said a delay isn’t enough and the government needs to stop contracting out veterans’ care.

And she’s hoping that enlisting other voices will help highlight the problem and get the government to start listening not just on the contract, but other issues as well.

“We wanted to look at having that collective voice with veterans and veterans’ organizations and service providers, because we hear from them as well,” she said. “And we know what those concerns are.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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