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Closure of vets' office will increase caseload on staff, says Fantino's office

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OTTAWA - The recent closure of eight Veterans Affairs offices has ignited a war of words between former soldiers and the Harper government over access to benefits and other services.

Veterans and their supporters say they'll have a harder time getting the help they need.

The Conservatives counter that moving more services online and to Service Canada outlets will actually make them more widely available.

They also point to shifting demographics as the number of Second World War and Korean War veterans decreases.

"When we have a small number of duplicated veterans offices that have a very small case load, it makes a lot more sense — I know the unions do not like it — to have 600 points of service for veterans," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week.

Each of the eight communities that lost a Veterans Affairs office will get a dedicated Veterans Affairs client-service agent at their nearest Service Canada outlet.

The rest of the Service Canada outlets across the country — there are nearly 600 of them — won't get dedicated Veterans Affairs client-service agents, but they'll be able to provide basic assistance to veterans and their families.

The 600 "points of service" for veterans the Conservatives are referring to are the Service Canada locations plus the remaining Veterans Affairs offices, operational stress injury clinics and integrated personnel support centres.

Of those, the 584 Service Canada outlets account for most of the 652 points of service.

But veterans and their supporters argue Service Canada staff lack the training to deal with veterans' cases, which can be complicated.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada says staff at each of the closed offices cannot be replaced by putting a single Veterans Affairs client-service agent in the nearest Service Canada office.

"Service Canada workers have received very limited training about Veterans Affairs services and programs, so can only answer general questions and supply and receive forms," the union says in a statement.

"They don't have the expertise or the time to sit down with veterans to help them fill out their applications for benefits and services or check to ensure that forms are properly completed."

The Royal Canadian Legion also expressed concern that the government's new online tools may confuse some veterans.

"While these tools may be useful for some, the Legion is very concerned for those veterans with significant needs who need face-to-face assistance," Gordon Moore, the Dominion president of the legion, said in a statement last week.

Figures provided by the union show some Veterans Affairs offices will inherit huge caseloads because of the closures. Most offices aren't getting more staff to help with the increased workload.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the union says the Halifax office will inherit about 4,200 new client files from the closed Sydney office. That's almost a third more clients.

Halifax is getting three more client-service agents, but the union says the office was already down five client-service agents since 2012.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has accused the union of misleading veterans.

"They (union officials) have spread so much misinformation and out-and-out false information that clearly has agitated the veterans community," Fantino told Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010.

"I would be agitated, too, if I heard some of these lies that they've been putting out."

Fantino's office points out that there's a difference between the catchment area — meaning all of the cases assigned to a particular office — and the number of those cases that require active care.

Some cases require little or no active management, while others are more time-consuming.

Fantino's office acknowledged the ratio of cases to case managers are set to increase slightly.

The minister's spokesman, Joshua Zanin, says before the office closures, each case manager handled an average of 31 cases. He says that will rise to an average of 34.5 cases per case manager because of the closures.

An NDP opposition motion calling on the government to keep the offices open went down to defeat Monday in the House of Commons.

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