Mental health access for families of veterans still lacking, says new ombudsman

Veterans Affairs Canada hasn’t gone far enough in reversing restrictions on mental health counselling for the families of former soldiers, sailors and aircrew, the county’s new veterans ombudsman says in a hard-hitting report.

The federal government imposed constraints on access to mental health counselling for families of veterans almost a year ago. The policy shift was a response to a political embarrassment — the case of convicted killer Christopher Garnier, a son of a veteran who obtained taxpayer-funded post traumatic stress treatment.

While Veterans Affairs never formally amended the family care policy, it began using a much stricter interpretation of it — which had a direct impact on some veterans’ families.

“There was also a lack of transparency with respect to how these significant changes in interpretation were implemented,” Nishika Jardine, a retired colonel, wrote in her report released today, her first since being appointed veterans ombudsman last fall.

“The lack of clear communication caused confusion and frustration among some veterans and their families, especially since some family members only found out about the changes during their mental health appointments.”

Late last winter, CBC News documented several cases of families who had seen services reduced or halted because of the stricter interpretation of the policy. Federal officials responded by denying that families had been “cut off” from care.

But as of mid-March 2020 — just when the pandemic was getting started — the department had notified 133 families in writing that their counselling benefits were in danger of being discontinued.

Jardine’s investigation noted that the restrictions were revised, but not reversed.

It’s not good enough, she concluded.

“The [Office of the Veterans Ombudsman] believes this guideline continues to be too narrow and that families should receive better access to the mental health supports that they need,” said her report.

The department’s policy ties family access to mental health treatment to the individual veteran and is meant to aid veterans themselves in their recovery.

The ombudsman argues that the families enduring the pressures of military life — the frequent moves, the isolation and the stress of knowing a loved one on deployment is in harm’s way — deserve their own unfettered access to taxpayer-funded treatment.

“In the OVO’s assessment, when a family member suffers from an illness or injury related to the unique conditions and challenges of military service, they should have access to mental health treatment, independent of the veteran’s treatment or rehabilitation plan,” said the report.

The department tightened its rules governing when families can receive subsidized counselling in the wake of the Garnier case. Stung by public criticism over that case, then-veterans minister Seamus O’Regan ordered a review and public servants began pursuing a stricter interpretation of the rules.

The current minister, Lawrence MacAulay, has asked his officials to be as flexible as possible in deciding whether family members qualify.

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