Military brass circle the wagons as MacKay hammered over mental health cuts
BY DAVID PUGLIESE AND CHRIS COBB, POSTMEDIA NEWS MAY 4, 2012 5:02 PM
OTTAWA — Skirting around questions about whether they had come under political pressure to come to the aid of Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Canadian Forces brass scrambled Friday to reassure the public that the military's medical system is taking care of troops with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues.
MacKay and the Conservative government came under fire in the Commons from opposition MPs after the Ottawa Citizen revealed the Defence Department is cutting the jobs of medical professionals involved in suicide prevention and monitoring of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).
At a hastily called news conference Friday afternoon, Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, made a brief appearance with other top brass to heap praise on MacKay and to welcome media scrutiny of the forces' treatment of mentally damaged warriors.
"It means that Canadians care about the needs and well-being of our sailors, soldiers and air men and women who have been injured," said the nation's top soldier. "I believe we have one of the best military health-care systems amongst our allies and are leaders in health care in this country. But we are far from perfect."
Natynczyk appealed to the nation's psychiatrists and psychologists to come to the aid of the military and volunteer to work at more remote bases such as Petawawa, Ont., and Gagetown, N.B., and then abruptly left the news conference before reporters were able to question him.
DND officials say Natynczyk added himself to the program at the last minute and had to return to his regular schedule.
The news conference was arranged as more questions were asked in the Commons Friday about the mental health treatment available to Canadian soldiers.
On Thursday, opposition MPs criticized MacKay for his lack of action on the issue.
Soldiers and the unions representing some DND health workers have come forward to news media with their concerns the system to take care of troops dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues is broken.
But officers at the news conference said the system is among the best in NATO, while praising the commitment of MacKay and the government.
Asked whether political pressure was behind the last-minute news conference, Rear-Admiral Andrew Smith, Chief Military Personnel, responded, "I think it's more importantly a clear indication to the degree which this issue — mental health care of the ill and injured — is taken seriously by the department and that includes our minister of national defence, who is a huge supporter of the troops."
Asked the question again, he added: "We are here to reaffirm the leadership of the Canadian Forces' support to men and women and we enjoy and have always enjoyed the support of our minister in that regard."
The officers, however, didn't deny that some workers have been notified that their jobs are being cut but said the situation was still being reviewed and no final decisions had been made.
Unions have been told that DND's Deployment Mental Health Research Section is being shut down, cutting four jobs, including those of suicide-prevention specialists. The employees also monitor PTSD rates and traumatic brain injury.
Eight of the 18 jobs in DND's epidemiology section will also be cut. Those include epidemiologists and researchers who analyze mental health issues such as depression, PTSD and suicide.
"Due to financial restraints, we are looking for ways and means to make our non-clinical support, our non-front line support, more efficient so we can focus our efforts where they need be — the medical care of our military members and their families," said Natynczyk.
The move comes on the heels of a new report indicating that suicides have increased in the Canadian Forces. At the same time the issues of suicide and PTSD are also under scrutiny at a military police complaints hearing in Ottawa. That hearing is examining how the Canadian Forces dealt with the case of Cpl. Stuart Langridge, an Afghanistan veteran who killed himself.
In a scathing report obtained by the Ottawa Citizen this week, a group of civilian health-care professionals providing much of the care for emotionally damaged Afghanistan war veterans at Petawawa said the system is in "crisis."
The report said the military is making a mistake in closing an Ottawa clinic for PTSD cases without having any firm plan in place for when care for those patients is transferred back to Petawawa in July.
Currently, the 6,000-member base has no psychologists and just one working psychiatrist, who because of other duties is able to devote only a quarter of her time to treating patients.
But Col. Jean-Robert Bernier, Deputy Surgeon General, said Friday that the two civilian psychologists now working out of the National Defence Medical Centre in Ottawa have both agreed to commute to Petawawa to treat patients.
Competition for psychiatrists and psychologists is tough, added personnel chief Smith.
"There is a shortage of mental health professionals Canada wide," he said. "We can offer a very competitive salary to physicians in general — mental health practitioners included — and we are in the market for those services."
In a statement Friday, the Canadian Psychiatric Association criticized the planned cuts across the military's health-care system.
"These cuts will seriously damage DND's ability to monitor the health of Canada's military members," said association president Dr. Fiona McGregor.
The military insist that the closing of the Ottawa clinic, and the dearth of mental health services that is forcing damaged, often suicidal soldiers to wait months for treatment, has nothing to do with budget restraints.
But the civilian report urged the government to re-think its entire treatment program, which they said is broken and underfunded.
"Our soldiers who fought for the freedom of children, mothers, fathers, grandchildren and all others in faraway countries are worthy of quality mental health services," said their report. "They are only asking for the same thing: the opportunity to heal and gain sustainable mental health. They should not have to fight for services, or wait in the desert of their minds hoping help will come soon."
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