OTTAWA – A bureaucratic, budgetary turf war that has stymied the hiring of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals at National Defence may be finally coming to an end in the wake of a suicide crisis that’s gripped the military.
Eighteen months after the Harper government put up $11.4 million toward a chronic staff shortage, the department says it’s just now in process of hiring up to 54 individuals to fill a need first identified a decade ago when the country’s war in Afghanistan began to heat up.
And the department’s lingering inability to fill the desperately needed positions has the taint of deficit-fighting politics as much as it relates to a nation-wide dearth of mental health workers, say a series of defence sources intimately familiar the file.
Defence spokeswoman Marie-Helene Brisson would not say when the hiring process would be completed, nor how soon those staff might be available.
But a series of defence sources told The Canadian Press some long-standing obstacles may have been removed. A ceiling on the total number of staff has been increased and the downloading of hiring decisions closer to the front line are among allowances being made as the military struggles with a sweeping number of suicides.
Both opposition parties say the fact soldiers have had to take their lives to prompt the government to start moving on hiring is “deeply shocking.”
Both New Democrat MP Jack Harris and Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray say it’s unconscionable, especially in light of stories they’ve heard from soldiers and their families who sometimes wait between up to two years for access services like counselling.
A report by the Canadian Forces ombudsman, in the fall of 2012, underscored that the department had never reached its goal of employing 447 mental health workers, a benchmark established in 2003.
As of last month, there were only 388 positions filled. The number has barely moved since Pierre Daigle’s report and has actually remained constant since about 2008.
The question is: Why?
Money has never been an issue.
Each of the positions has been fully funded as part of the baseline budget for the military’s medical branch since the early 2000′s. In fact, the Harper government’s injection of an additional $11.4 million — on top of a previous $98 million — left military officials in a quandary, according to defence sources.
Former Canadian Forces surgeon general, retired commodore Hans Jung, told a Parliamentary committee in December 2012 that “the issue has never been a lack of resources,” rather, it was his ability to spend allocated funds because of “hiring practices.”
The problem has been a stifling process that effectively creates a disincentive to hire, one that’s only grown worse since the 2010 federal budget instituted a hiring freeze, say the defence sources, who were not authorized to talk to the media.
Even though the positions were identified and money earmarked, every potential hire — both contract and public service — has been subject to an increasing level of scrutiny since that landmark deficit-slaying budget. Each application must be justified in writing, vetted and put before a committee of assistant deputy ministers at National Defence.
The process could sometimes take six months — or more.
That committee is chaired by the assistant deputy minister, human resources/civilian and more often than not the requests were either turned down — or had taken so long the candidate had accepted another job.
The question being asked internally for years has been: “Why do we have to rejustify each position?”
The answer, invariably, was that in order to increase staff in one area, staff would have to be cut elsewhere, said the sources.
“They were looking at every penny,” said one source.
The bottleneck was so bad, and so worrisome, that in late 2011 and early 2012 staff from the military’s medical branch made a special appearance before the closed-door bureaucratic committee, pleading to be allowed to hire.
What was even more disturbing, the sources said, was that unspent salaries for mental health professional were kicked back to the department and eventually to the federal treasury in the form of lapsed funds.
Critics have been raising the alarm about how much of the defence budget has not been spent. At the end of the 2011 budget year, the department gave back $1.5 billion toward the deficit fight.
The government’s fixation of a balanced budget before the next election and the incentives for bureaucrats to get there have created this situation, said the NDP’s Jack Harris.
“This is putting electoral strategy ahead of the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, who need help,” he said.
The Liberals were even more pointed in their criticism, saying the bottleneck has been evident for years and it was up to former defence minister Peter MacKay, and now his successor, Rob Nicholson, to have rattled cages.
“They’ve used National Defence for photo opportunities, but this government doesn’t have a clear intention around the well-being of its injured soldiers and this is proof,” said Murray.
The hiring freeze — known bureaucratically as the full-time equivalent cap — has not affected the drive to hire more psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, said Brisson.
“Mental health professionals are typically in short supply in Canada, and it can be difficult to attract qualified and experienced candidates into the public service,” she wrote in an email late Friday.
Yet, in November 2012, during an appearance before the House of Commons defence committee, the current military surgeon-general, Brig.-Gen. Jean-Robert Bernier, testified that over 200 applicants were waiting at that time to fill the vacant public servant positions.
Since the budget for those jobs had already been established, Brisson was asked to account for the additional millions of dollars the Conservatives threw at mental health in 2012. At the time, the news release linked it directly to the hiring of 50 extra staff.
Brisson said it has been used to reduce to wait times through advance initiatives such as tele-health for remote locations, the purchase of 90 high-definition desktop videoconferencing systems, and for the exploration of advanced post-traumatic stress treatments, such as virtual reality exposure therapy.