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ACVA Committee Report

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Government Response to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Report
“Restoring Confidence in the Veterans Review and Appeal Board”

The Government of Canada welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Seventh Report of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs: Restoring Confidence in the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

The Veterans Review and Appeal Board (the Board) is a quasi-judicial tribunal. It operates at arm’s length from Government to provide Veterans, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) personnel, and their families, with an independent avenue of appeal for disability benefits decisions made by the Department of Veterans Affairs (the Department). The Board is committed to providing quality service to these individuals in both official languages. Last year alone, the Board conducted 4700 reviews and appeals, and awarded new or increased disability benefits to more than 2100 applicants. The Government is pleased to see in the Committee’s Report, support for an independent tribunal and recognition that a great number of people are well served by the Board.

The Government is pleased to note that the 13 recommendations align closely with recent progress and ongoing activities to improve the appeal process and to better meet the needs of Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families. The Government recognizes that more work needs to be done and agrees with the Committee’s recommendations. It is pleased to note that the Board is already working diligently to implement them. The Government provides a response to the recommendations by theme, as set out below.


Reinforcing and Promoting Independence

Recommendation 1: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board review its processes as to ensure the independence of Board members and their decision-making.

Recommendation 6: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board should examine its hiring and management practices and its conflict of interest and ethics policies, and ensure that adequate training is offered to ensure that the Board operates independently as prescribed by the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act.

The Government of Canada shares the view of the Committee and witnesses that Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families, have the right to an independent avenue of appeal for disability benefits decisions made by the Department. As noted by the Committee, they also deserve a fair appeal process – one where they can be heard by impartial, competent and independent adjudicators who base their decisions on the law and on the facts of each applicant’s case. The Government of Canada acknowledges that the Board is committed to fairness in the appeal process and that the Board supports the recommendations to ensure its independence for those who turn to it for redress. In response to the Committee’s recommendations, the Board is demonstrating its commitment to reinforce its independence and competence by:

  • reviewing its Vision, Mission and Values statements to reflect what is most important to Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families, when they appeal their disability benefits decisions;

  • improving its open, merit-based member selection process that recognizes the value of military, medical, policing and legal backgrounds, for Canadians who are interested in being considered for appointment to the Board;

  • following and endorsing the principles and practices of the Public Service Commission of Canada by hiring staff based on merit;

  • reviewing its privacy practices to further strengthen the protection of personal information of its personnel and those appearing before the Board;

  • requiring all new staff and members to participate in a new orientation program that emphasises the importance of independence in a tribunal setting and promotes discussion on how individuals support the Board’s independence through their daily responsibilities;

  • requiring all new members to undergo training on independence and impartiality with respect to decision making;

  • requiring all staff to understand and follow a new organizational Code of Conduct to complement the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector;

  • reviewing the Code of Professional Conduct for Board members to ensure it promotes independence in their decision making, upholds ethical standards and gives guidance on issues of conflict of interest;

  • reviewing the roles, responsibilities and operational practices of staff who give advice and support to Board members and providing them with additional training where necessary to ensure Board members’ independence is upheld at all times;

  • providing members and staff with in-house tools that speak to independence and impartiality, such as a Practice Essentials manual under development for Board members, to complement the Codes of Conduct and ongoing professional development; and

  • ensuring the Memorandum of Understanding regarding corporate services provided by the Department to the Board clearly defines respective roles, responsibilities and accountabilities that support the Board’s institutional independence.

The Board must be, and be seen to be, independent in its decision making and operations in order to instil confidence in the people it serves. The Government of Canada acknowledges the Board’s commitment to respond fully to the Committee’s recommendations by reinforcing its independence to ensure a fair appeal process for Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families.


Ensuring Fairness in Decision Making

Recommendation 2: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board review the evidence requirements to ensure that they are consistent with the practices of the quasi-judicial tribunal industry standards.

Recommendation 4: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, moving forward, will interpret and apply Section 39 of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act (the benefit of the doubt clause) as it was intended and clearly explain how this was done in all of its decisions and to the stakeholder community.

The Government of Canada fully agrees with the Committee that Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families are entitled to fair decisions that comply with the legislation. It is pleased that the Board will review quasi-judicial tribunal practices regarding evidence requirements. The Board will continue to interpret and apply both the word and the spirit of section 39 of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act; it must review evidence in the most favourable light possible and give Veterans the benefit of the doubt in every case where doubt is raised.

The Government of Canada agrees with the Committee that the Board needs to do more to clearly explain how the benefit of the doubt is applied in all of its decisions and to the stakeholder community – it is critical that applicants see this special provision interpreted as it was intended. The Board will do this by:

  • using training and decision writing initiatives to improve the clarity of decisions and to explain how the benefit of the doubt is applied in every case;

  • following up on valuable feedback from Veterans on these decision improvements, and looking for their suggestions to guide future efforts;

  • providing Board members with ongoing opportunities for training and full tribunal discussions on legal and procedural matters; and

  • communicating more with the stakeholders on this issue.

The Government of Canada is pleased to note that the Board is renewing its efforts to ensure fairness in decision making and to obtain input and feedback from Veterans and other stakeholders for further improvements.


Increasing Transparency and Communications

Recommendation 3: That VAC and VRAB continue to be proactive in employing outreach initiatives aimed at reaching out to the veteran community to explain what is required in terms of evidence when appealing departmental decisions pertaining to disability benefits.

Recommendation 8: That all Veterans Review and Appeal Board decisions sent to the Federal Court or that are reviewed a second time by the Veterans Review and Appeal Board be published on the web within the next year.

Recommendation 9: That a reputable and independent organization be hired to assist the Veterans Review and Appeal Board in selecting key decisions to be posted on its web site.

The Committee made several recommendations that call for more transparency about decision making through increased outreach and online initiatives. The Government agrees with the Committee’s conclusions that stakeholder communities need access to information to support their applications for disability benefits and related appeals. The Board and the Department are committed to the principle of transparency and making the adjudication, review and appeal processes more open and easier to understand. 

As set out in further detail below, the Board will:

  • develop an exit survey for Veterans about their hearing experience;

  • enhance and promote its Web site; publish noteworthy decisions; and

  • explore the feasibility of using an independent organization to help select decisions for posting on its Web site.

The Department will:

  • provide briefings for CAF personnel;

  • provide free legal services through the Bureau of Pensions Advocates;

  • improve decision letters;

  • enhance the information on its Web site; and

  • partner with stakeholders to share information.

Veterans Review and Appeal Board

The Government of Canada has been advised of a number of initiatives to improve the Board’s communications with the Veteran community.  The Board will implement an exit survey in 2013/14 to gather feedback from Veterans about their hearing experience in order to guide improvements for the future. The Board will also renew its outreach efforts and will work more closely with the Department, the CAF command structure, the RCMP and Veterans’ organizations to identify and carry out new and coordinated outreach activities. It will review and enhance the information on its Web site and promote the site more aggressively. 

The Government is pleased to note that the Board is responding to the Committee’s recommendations by improving transparency in decision making for the benefit of Veterans and their families. In May 2012, the Board began publishing noteworthy decisions on its Web site to illustrate decision making in individual cases and to help Veterans understand how it has dealt with common medical conditions and evidence.  It will continue to post new noteworthy decisions in both official languages. The Board will also explore the feasibility of hiring an external party to select key decisions for posting on its Web site with consideration given to Veterans’ privacy and the current fiscal environment.

Furthermore, the Government of Canada recognizes the importance of Federal Court decisions because they give the Board direction on applying and interpreting the legislation. The Government agrees with the Committee that the Board should share information with the public about guidance it receives from the Federal Court. To that end, the Board has added a direct link on its Web site to the Federal Court’s decision database, through which decisions concerning the Board can be found. To respond to the Committee’s recommendation, it will also implement an approach to publishing Board decisions involving the Federal Court that balances openness in decision making and privacy. In addition, since the Committee’s report, the Board has published on its Web site the annotated version of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act which includes relevant excerpts and summaries from Federal Court decisions.


The Department of Veterans Affairs

The Government of Canada acknowledges the Department’s commitment to providing quality service and information to men and women in uniform, Veterans and their families. This commitment responds directly to the Committee’s recommendation and includes ongoing outreach to ensure that they are aware of and understand the programs and services available to them as they transition from military to civilian life.

The Department provides information briefings to CAF personnel at various times throughout their careers. These include Second Career Assistance Network Seminars, Medical Information Days, Pre-deployment Briefings, and Professional Development Days. During these briefings, information is provided regarding the disability benefit application process, evidence requirements including the importance of documenting injuries, and appeal rights. Staff in local area offices and the Integrated Personnel Support Centres also provide information on evidence requirements directly to CAF personnel, Veterans and their families and are available to assist with the disability benefit applications.

The Bureau of Pensions Advocates (BPA) provides free advice, counselling, assistance and representation to individuals who are dissatisfied with decisions rendered by the Department with respect to claims for entitlement to disability benefits or any assessment awarded for their entitled conditions.  If an appeal is being considered, BPA counsels individuals on evidence requirements as well as the relative merits of an appeal.  BPA is funded by the Government of Canada, and makes Canada unique as the only nation known to offer free legal services to its Veterans. 

The Government of Canada agrees that the Department has a duty to provide all individuals with information that is clear and easy to understand. The Department will improve the quality of its disability decision letters by using simpler language, providing clearer reasons for decisions, and providing consistent information on evidence requirements and appeal rights. 

The Government of Canada is pleased that the Department will explore new ways to reach out to CAF personnel, Veterans and their families to ensure that they have access to the information they need, where and when they need it.  For example, the Department’s Table of Disabilities and Entitlement Eligibility Guidelines are now available online for the public.  These help applicants understand the basis on which decisions are made. In October 2012, the Department launched a Benefits Browser on its external Web site to centralize access to information on its programs. The Browser allows the public to quickly identify information about the programs, policies and legislation that are most relevant to them. The Department will complete the renewal and posting of its program policies to the external Web site in 2013. This will mark the first time that all program policies will be available online.

The Department will also partner with Veterans’ organizations and other stakeholders to ensure they clearly understand evidence requirements for disability benefit applications so they can share this information with applicants, as appropriate.


Striving for Fewer Varied Decisions

Recommendation 5: That Veterans Affairs Canada review its internal processes and policies in an effort to reduce the number of decisions that are overturned by the Veterans Review and Appeal Board to the greatest extent possible.

Decisions may be varied for a number of reasons, including new evidence provided by the applicant at the time of review or appeal, an error of law or fact, or differing interpretations of policies. The Department is currently undergoing a policy renewal project which should reduce the number of decisions varied due to differing policy interpretations.  The project involves reviewing and updating policies on a regular basis to ensure they are clear, responsive, and reflect the spirit and intent of the legislation.  The Government of Canada understands it will be completed by April 2013 and will provide decision makers with simpler, more user-friendly policies.  Additionally, in circumstances where a Veteran does not submit sufficient evidence to clearly substantiate entitlement, a disability adjudicator will make contact by telephone before a decision is rendered. 

The Government of Canada is pleased that the Department:

  • has developed a Program Policy Development Manual to ensure consistency and efficiency in the development of program policies;

  • has developed guiding principles for experts who assess health-related evidence for the purposes of disability benefit entitlement;

  • is reviewing its benefit of the doubt policy (which relates to the Pension Act and the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act);

  • has formed a joint task force with the Board to review and discuss trends emerging from Federal Court decisions (and is considering developing a similar task force to review Board decisions); and

  •  is working to ensure that all pertinent evidence that is available is brought forward for consideration in the first application.

These efforts should help ensure that applicants receive the benefits to which they are entitled at the earliest possible opportunity.


Increasing Knowledge and Understanding of Military and Policing Cultures

Recommendation 7: That VRAB training efforts ensure that VRAB members and staff are more familiar with military and police culture.

The Government of Canada agrees with the Committee’s recognition of the value of having Board members and staff who understand and appreciate the realities of CAF and RCMP service. As noted by the Committee, all parties benefit from a balanced composition of Board members that reflects military and policing experience. Since 2006, the Government has increased the percentage of Board members with these backgrounds from 14 to 33 percent. In 2012, it delivered on this commitment through the merit-based appointments of four new members with extensive military, policing and/or medical backgrounds, and will continue to do so. The Board has also been successful, through its staffing practices, in attracting staff with military experience.

The Government of Canada is pleased that the Board will provide all members and staff with more opportunities to increase their understanding and appreciation of the realities of military and policing cultures. Board members and staff with these backgrounds are encouraged to share their experiences with their colleagues. The Board has always provided members with ongoing and specialized training from medical, legal, military and civilian experts and is taking steps to increase the involvement of the CAF and RCMP in this training. This will mean working more closely with the CAF command structure and RCMP liaison to Veterans Affairs.

The Government of Canada appreciates that the Board provides opportunities for all members to visit CAF bases (e.g. Edmonton, Esquimalt, Greenwood) in recognition of the value of meeting CAF personnel and learning first-hand about their work. Other events of this nature will be explored with both the CAF and the RCMP. The Board will actively seek out presenters from the CAF and the RCMP to foster a better understanding among Board members and staff of the needs and expectations of serving personnel and Veterans. All new Board members and staff are also required to complete the “CF 101 for Civilians” online course on military culture to help them better understand applicants’ military experience, military life and the chain of command.

The Board will emphasise that members and staff must always bear in mind the debt owed to those who have served our country so well.


Improving Service to Veterans and their Families

Recommendation 10: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board bolster its data collection processes so it can properly track its activities.

Recommendation 11: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board begin publishing an annual report to Parliament.

Recommendation 12: That the Veterans Review and Appeal Board reduce its decision time frame to 16 weeks from the moment a veteran schedules a hearing with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.

Recommendation 13: That Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board both review the present report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, as is required when a report is tabled in the House of Commons, and that they both provide an update on their progress in implementing the recommendations made in this report one year from its tabling in Parliament.

The Government of Canada agrees with the Committee’s focus on making sure that Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families, have access to a fair and effective appeal process for their disability benefits decisions. Sound data collection and analysis will contribute to ongoing improvements to the disability benefits programs and help the Board enhance the Veteran's experience with the hearing process.

The Government is pleased to note that in response to the Committee’s recommendations, the Board is improving its data collection processes. It has a comprehensive tracking system independent of the Department’s client information database to ensure that Veterans’ applications for review and appeal are tracked at every step of the process. It also allows the Board to closely monitor processing time frames and take corrective actions where necessary to ensure timely service. The Board is enhancing this system to identify trends in applications and other useful information that could lead to service improvements throughout the disability benefits system for Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families.

The Board is developing performance indicators that will be used to ensure standards are met at hearings and during the decision-making process.  This analysis will be used to identify areas for improvement and will be included in the 2013-14 Departmental Performance Report.

The Government fully agrees with the Committee’s focus on openness and endorses the production of future annual reports by the Board to Parliament to reinforce transparency and accountability.

Applicants to the Board can expect to have a decision within 16 weeks from the moment they schedule a hearing with the Board.  The Board will strive to meet this commitment in all cases and sets a performance target of 80 percent in recognition of the complexity of some cases and other circumstances beyond its control. The Board will review its procedures, monitor its workload and work with applicants and their representatives to get cases heard at the earliest opportunity.

The Government confirms that it will provide a letter to update the Committee on the progress made by the Department and the Board in implementing the recommendations made in the subject Report within one year of its tabling.


Conclusion

Every year, thousands of individuals appear before the Board to have their information looked at in the best possible light by independent decision makers – and benefit from this opportunity.  The Report confirmed that the Board has a critical role to play in supporting Veterans, CAF and RCMP personnel, and their families, in obtaining the benefits they are entitled to for illness and injuries related to their service to Canada. It also sends a strong message that the Board needs to do more to serve them.

The Government of Canada thanks the Committee and the witnesses who provided evidence for this important review. The Board will continue to fulfill its mandate as an independent tribunal while striving to fully address the concerns raised by the Committee in its Report.