November 25, 2014 / 3:43 PM / 5 years ago

Canada failing veterans with mental illnesses: official watchdog

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is failing veterans with mental illnesses, an official watchdog said on Tuesday in a stinging report that could hurt the Conservative government less than a year before the next election.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson, who reports to Parliament, said the federal Veterans Affairs ministry was “not adequately facilitating timely access to mental health services.”

Ferguson said around 20 percent of veterans complained they had to wait more than eight months to access specialized mental health services, double the time set by the ministry. He blamed what he called a complex application process.

Canada’s right-of-center Conservatives, who took power in early 2006, paint themselves as pro-military and have long courted veterans for support.

Some veterans, however, complain about poor services and have promised to campaign against the party in an election scheduled for October 2015. Polls indicate the Conservatives could lose power to the opposition Liberals.

Demand for mental health services has soared in Canada, which maintained a military mission in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2013. During that mission it lost 158 soldiers.

Frank Valeriote, Liberal spokesman for veterans affairs, noted that 160 soldiers - many of them battling mental health problems - had committed suicide over the last decade.

“Today’s report is a shameful reminder of the Conservatives’ record, confirming that veterans cannot get timely access to the mental health services they need,” he said.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, who has been criticized by opposition politicians and some veterans’ advocates for his handling of the file, on Tuesday announced an action plan he said would cut wait times.

Veterans with mental health conditions represent almost 12 percent of ex-soldiers receiving benefits from Veterans Affairs, up from less than 2 percent in 2002.

The government, which saw a copy of Ferguson’s report ahead of it being made public, announced on Sunday it would spend an extra C$200 million ($179 million) over the next six years to address mental health issues among soldiers.

Government accounts released earlier this month showed that more than C$1.1 billion in funding allocated to the veteran affairs ministry since 2006 had not been spent, which critics said was more evidence that veterans were being short-changed.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Monday the C$1.1 billion figure demonstrated that spending estimates at the ministry had been too high.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Paul Simao, Jeffrey Hodgson and Richard Chang

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