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Cleaners cry foul over Tory changes to home-care program for veterans

OTTAWA - Already under fire for the closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices, the Conservative government is now facing a fresh barrage of criticism for changes to a national home-care program for former soldiers.

One of Canada's largest providers of housecleaning services to veterans says an overhaul of the Veterans Independence Program two years ago has actually made it more difficult for retired members of the military to manage services such as housekeeping and yard work.

"My company had provided cleaning services to many veterans under the (program) up until this change, however, we now service approximately 50 per cent of the veterans we did before this change," said Kevin Hipkins of Molly Maid International.

"We know that many of these veterans are not getting the services they need because of the difficulty in managing the new process, while others are using the money to help pay for their living expenses."

Hipkins and a counterpart at competitor Merry Maid have complained to both current Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and his predecessor, Steven Blaney, but to no avail.

The Conservatives say changes to the Veterans Independence Program in 2012 stripped away the administrative burden on ex-soldiers by giving them two up-front payments per year, rather than requiring them to submit receipts for specific services and then wait for reimbursement.

But it hasn't quite worked out that way, Hipkins said.

"There's only one place that veterans probably will buy the service right now, and that's through the underground economy: people that don't give receipts, that don't carry insurance," he said.

"It puts these individuals at risk."

A Veterans Affairs review of the program a year before it was changed found it generally worked well, even if there was still some room for improvement. The review also found other payment methods, including the current grant model, might not be as efficient.

"There do not appear to be alternative design and delivery approaches that would be more efficient and still provide value for money," the review says, "however within the existing program design and delivery approach, efficiency gains could be realized."

Still, the review found that 97 per cent of veterans were reimbursed within 10 business days. Giving veterans grants was not considered as effective as having them submit receipts for reimbursement.

"Advance pay, which is considered a quasi-grant approach, was determined to be less cost-effective and less efficient in delivering (the program) than the reimbursement method," the review says.

Fantino's office did not respond to questions. Instead, a spokeswoman for the department emailed a brief statement.

"Recipients have the discretion to decide how the funding will be used to best meet their individual needs," wrote Janice Summerby.

"Recipients continue to have the right to use a service provider of their choice; thus, there is no requirement for them to remain with their existing service provider."

Veterans Affairs Canada can provide veterans with a list of recognized service providers in their geographical area, she added.

Access to benefits and other services is at the heart of another ongoing spat between veterans and the Harper government over the recent closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices.

Veterans and their supporters say they'll have a harder time getting the help they need, while the Conservatives counter that moving more services online and to Service Canada outlets will actually make them more widely available.

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