OTTAWA – The Harper government was on the defensive again Friday over reports that the latest cash injection for mental-health services for veterans could take 50 years to be portioned out.
Conservative MP Parm Gill, the parliamentary secretary to the veterans affairs minister, deflected questions about the numbers, but noted the government’s plans to build a major operational stress injury clinic in Halifax and open other satellite offices across the country.
Last Sunday, the Harper government announced it would put up to $200 million into improved mental health care for veterans in a series of initiatives that stretch out over five, possibly six years.
But a Globe and Mail report Friday said only $19 million of that would be so-called up-front cash, with the rest being used to help top up the Veterans Affairs budget over the next 50 years.
The Conservatives got into similar trouble a few years ago when they announced $2 billion in improvements to the new veterans charter, but were later forced to admit much of the cash was for future budgets.
A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino did not address the claim that some of the cash will take five decades to spend, but insisted that the government is budgeting responsibly over the long-term.
“To build on recent investments, last Sunday we announced increased mental health support for those in the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans, and their families,” Ashlee Smith said in an email.
“This government is ensuring that veterans receive compensation and support for today and the rest of their lives. It would be irresponsible not to do so.”
Making a political announcement with big dollar figures that stretch out over half a century is disrespectful to former soldiers who are in need of immediate help, said New Democrat critic Alexandre Boulerice.
“I think veterans deserve better,” Boulerice said. “They deserve to be treated (better)when they get back from the front.”
The Conservatives have been under fire for the last couple of weeks on veterans issues, but the pressure increased substantially Tuesday with auditor general Michael Ferguson’s scathing report on the handling of mental health claims.
Ferguson’s report said it takes one in five combat veterans up to eight months to find out whether the federal government will cover their treatment, a delay he described as unacceptably long.
The auditor’s report is just one of a series of studies released this year looking at the plight of soldiers and veterans.