I call the meeting to order.
Good morning, everybody. I'd like to start the meeting.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on February 25, 2016, the committee resumes its study on service delivery to veterans. At the end of the meeting we'll go in camera to discuss future business.
As witnesses today, we have the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones, Robert Thibeau, president; the Korea Veterans Association of Canada, Bill Black, president, Unit 7; and by video conference from Calgary, Donald Leonardo, national president of Veterans Canada.
Each organization will be given 10 minutes to make an opening statement; then we'll proceed to questions and answers. Because of the video conference, can we direct our questions specifically to Robert, Bill, or Donald?
Let's start with the national president of Veterans Canada, Donald Leonardo.
Thank you very much for this invitation to speak to the ACVA committee on service delivery.
I'd also like to say hello to my colleagues and friends in the room.
The study on delivery of service to veterans suggested questions, so I polled the 8,000 members of Veterans Canada on three of these questions. I'll go over those polling results.
The first question that we submitted to the membership was as follows:
According to your organization and the veterans you represent, would you say that wait times for decisions have been reduced? If so, can you provide concrete examples or evidence in this respect?
Ninety-seven members responded to this question, and 90% of them said no.
I'll give you some of the live quotes that came from them. Here is one: “The answer would be a definite no.”
I can only refer to the veterans I personally have served with in my own case, which was a year or more ago.
The second quote was, “I can only speak about the apparent policy of Veterans Affairs to refuse claims outright, then hope that the person claiming will give up and go away. I'm presently in my fifth month of wrangling for medical benefits and see no clear end in sight.”
These are the responses from that first question.
I'll go on to the second question of that part, which was as follows:
Given that the primary reason for processing delays is incomplete applications, are you aware of any new initiatives to help veterans ensure their applications are complete?
One hundred and two people responded, and again 90% said no.
Here are a couple of the answers to that question.
One reads “I believe the staffers in offices often take the easiest route by returning files deemed incomplete, even though sufficient information was provided by the applicant to answer or act on the request.”
The second says, “I asked the advocate for help in filling out the application because I'm not competent in representing my medical situation. I told her I knew a doctor who is, but was denied permission to negotiate with him for his expertise. I feel as a result my claim will be negatively affected.”
Again, my response to this is that there appear to still be problems with incomplete applications, and as I have stated before, assistance used to be provided by the Bureau of Pension Advocates.
My suggestion once again is to return to the pre-1996 practice and have them hire full-time veterans to assist with applications once again. Please remove the Legion from access to back files, since we recently learned that that has been a problem. The Legion can still provide their service without accessing back files.
I'll go on to the next question, which was as follows:
Since delays can also be related to the transfer of medical records between the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, are you aware of any changes in the way these transfers occur?
One hundred members responded. Ninety per cent said no or that it was not applicable after release.
Here is one of the answers: “In my opinion, DND is prompt and efficient in forwarding retiree files. Time is lost when DVA delays assigning staff to review the file once received. DND should also transfer its existing clients' VAC files to both VAC and the veteran automatically, so those that have already released from DND and their files haven't been transferred, both should be automatically transferred.”
Now I'll go on to the next question, which was as follows:
Have you witnessed improvements in the way veterans with complex needs can interact with their case manager?
There were 102 responses, and 90% said no.
Here is one answer: “No. I was informed by the caseworker that she had done everything she could for me and would therefore no longer handle my case. Veterans Canada members have noticed that they have lost their case managers in the last few months to veterans service agents, even though they have complex needs and injuries.”
The second part of that question reads:
For veterans whose needs are not sufficiently complex to warrant the involvement of a case manager, do you think that the number of veterans' service agents, and their competence, is sufficient?
There were 108 responses, of which 90% said no and 10% said yes.
I'll go on to a quote from that one: “No, veterans service agents do not have enough training or understanding to help a veteran.”
Here's a second quote: “The service agents that I have encountered fill out the forms and process paper. There is no consultation on probability factors, questions, and otherwise any discussions with the veteran. There appears to be two standards and two classes of veterans.”
Do I still have time, Mr. Chairman?
Okay. The next question is:
How do veterans evaluate the services provided in the operational stress injuries clinics setup by Veterans Affairs Canada?
There were 96 responses from our membership, of which 40% said they didn't know.
The quote was “I have never been asked to evaluate OSI set up by VAC. I've been in treatment now for more than nine years and only have been treated follow-up by the OSI doctor since October 2015.”
Many members of Veterans Canada at the OSI clinics across the country have been referred to family doctors after a two-year period. This makes the stats for the OSI clinics look good when patients are let go right after the two-year treatment period. They therefore have to fend for their own medications and treatments with their family doctors. If they relapse after the first two years, many find doctors who will prescribe medical marijuana, or else they find their own therapy through psychologists.
The next question is:
Do you think that family members of veterans suffering from mental health problems should receive psychological and financial support from Veterans Affairs Canada?
There were 115 responses, of which 93% said yes.
Here is a quote from members: “Yes. PTSD does have a toll on spouses and children like second-hand smoking.”
Here is another quote: “If the families have to provide comfort and support for their family members, I believe they should receive psychological and family support. If the individual was in an institution, their support would be paid for and the staff trained, so why not for the individual who lives with family?”
My response is that the last quote says it all.
Now, how long are we going to talk about this before we act on these replies? I believe this was in the 2008 new Veterans Charter advisory group's recommendations.
I thank you for this opportunity to speak, Mr. Chairman. Although we've been doing these committees, these reviews, and these studies for the last 10 years—not to mention all the reports that have been written—there probably haven't been more than five or ten recommendations in that time that have been put through. I hope this doesn't go unheard this time.
Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, good morning.
I wish to acknowledge that we meet today on Algonquin territory, land that has never been ceded or surrendered. I think the Algonquin nation for the privilege to meet here to speak to all of our warrior veterans, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. I wish to also acknowledge a personal friend and comrade, Mr. Bill Black, a Korean veteran well respected in the veterans community.
As president of the Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones, I once again appear here to represent the aboriginal veterans from my organization as well as veterans from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. I take my responsibility very seriously and thank the committee members for allowing me once again to speak on veterans' issues.
I'm here to discuss the delivery of services for veterans. I will speak only on matters that I feel need to be addressed, only on issues that need to be mentioned on behalf of aboriginal veterans from coast to coast to coast. We do not wish to be classed only as veterans. Rather, we take pride in our service to Canada and our service with all Canadian veterans. With them we stand united.
A decade ago, Veterans Affairs introduced the veterans transition action plan, which was designed to assist veterans leaving the Canadian Armed Forces and moving into civilian life. This plan has certainly had its challenges, but for the most part it has provided the help veterans needed to transition out of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Many veterans moved smoothly through the programs and received the entitlements and benefits. There were some, though, who faced obstacles. The delay of services or benefits may well have been concentrated in the transfer of medical documents between the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada. I am not aware if this problem has been rectified, but I know that coordination and effective communication between release sections and Veterans Affairs caseworkers will certainly help to alleviate any problems.
Veterans Affairs announced recently that it will be hiring enough new caseworkers to reduce the caseworker-to-client ratio to 25:1. This could be a positive factor in improving wait times and document transfers.
The closing of offices by the previous government had an adverse effect on some of our aboriginal veterans, notably those in the Saskatoon area. This was the only office that was reasonably close to our first nations or to rural communities where Métis lived as well, although in some cases the drive to get to that location was four hours. When the office closed, veterans were forced to deal with Veterans Affairs online—if they had that capability—or by phone. With the reopening of this office, we hope that caseworkers will also be required to visit face to face for consultations.
I would add that the vast majority of veterans in Canada did not support the move to Service Canada for veterans' services. The main reason was that the person on the phone was not conversant with our policies and procedures, nor did they understand the scope of any of the veterans' issues.
On the issue of reaching out to less populated areas—our remote first nations, rural communities, and communities in the north—in the four years I've been involved with this committee, I haven't seen much movement on the key issues put forward by my organization, by the Legion, or by other veterans' groups.
For example, I advocated for veterans in our rural and isolated communities, communicating with them on benefits and entitlements. I explained that the technology enjoyed by mainstream Canadians is not necessarily the norm in remote communities and that we needed to develop a better plan to deal with the issues. I was happy to hear last week at the minister's summit that there is apparently a plan to answer the communication problems in the north. Although we did not hear specifics, it would appear that somebody has put it on the table, and my hope is that there will be no delays in the implementation of this plan, which has to include face-to-face consultation.
When we speak of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health in general, I believe that OSISS offices across the country are in most cases meeting the needs of those veterans who have sought help. I can only hope more injured service personnel take advantage of these offices.
Families of veterans who are suffering must be included in the treatment of the veteran, because they are the ones closest to the veteran and are also affected by that injury. Our aboriginal communities see post-traumatic stress disorder, and those affected by it, as being disconnected from mother earth. The warrior needs to be reconnected, and our ceremonies such as sweat lodges help our wounded warriors to cope and to and move on down the path of healing to deal with those demons and eventually reconnect with mother earth, their families, their friends, and all relations.
The vocational rehabilitation program appears to have a great deal of positive components to assist not only the veteran but also the families of veterans, depending on the degree of injury. It is not reasonable to have a policy that must be activated after release within two years of that release date. Veterans need to be healed before they can do any type of vocational rehab, or any type of program, or even apply for it. You must take into account that with some of the more severe cases, be they physical or mental injuries or a combination of the two, it may be wise to consider interaction with caseworkers, health care professionals, and others involved directly with the veteran and the veteran's family to decide if and when rehabilitation is practical. It may very well be longer than the current two-year policy.
Veterans within my organization living in Quebec, as well as other veterans' groups, were disappointed to see that the Ste. Anne's Hospital was transferred to provincial control. The so-called traditional veterans are few in number, and the government feels it's time to change the way it deals with veterans seeking long-term care. There will be no veteran-specific floors in the provinces, and the fear is that obtaining space in the provincial system will be slow at best and that veterans will be treated like other people seeking the same type of care.
The department must remember that we still have veterans and that facilities for long-term care should be available for veterans, at least as a first option. It may be felt that at this time the need may not be critical, but the future will see veterans counting on these facilities to be there when they feel the need. There may very well be a tidal wave of veterans coming near the time they will require long-term care facilities. How will the government cope with this reality when that time comes?
Effective communication is the cornerstone to ensure success. If you can communicate your message to everyone, and it is understood, then you have achieved the first and most important step in providing care to veterans.
I recently sat with two retired chief warrant officers, with a combined service of approximately 65 years of regular force service. Their response to communicating with service personnel was to go through the leadership that is already there in the Canadian Armed Forces.
One of their suggestions was—of course, being chief warrant officers they would use this one—that if Veterans Affairs Canada wants to ensure information regarding benefits and programs are available, chair a base chief warrant officers' conference once a year for three to five days and give them the information on all of the programs and benefits and entitlements that Canadian Armed Forces members may be entitled to once they move from the military. Then have those chief warrant officers, when they go back to those bases, deliver or disseminate the information to the units within their base structure.
I am quite sure there are other ways to do this, but as a soldier and as a leader of soldiers, I was responsible for the welfare for those under my command. Leaders will always look after their soldiers, and that includes communication.
Mr. Chairman, committee members, and fellow veterans, thank you. Meegwetch, marsi, merci, qujannamiik, all my relations.
My name is Bill Black. I'm 82 years old, and our battles were 65 years ago.
We have a different statement to make. We probably live in an isolated world because of our age, which is close to that of the Second World War veterans.
Ladies and gentlemen, 30 years ago, the chartered Korea Veterans Association of Canada, or KVA, held a total membership of approximately 4,000 to 5,000 veterans from coast to coast, comprising 55 units. We were well represented across Canada. That's an average of nearly 100 men per unit. However, Ottawa Unit 7 was the largest in Canada, with a strong membership of over 400 Korean War veterans.
I was advised some time ago by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea that Ottawa's is the largest unit in the world, notwithstanding that there were 21 countries involved in the Korean War, 16 of which sent combat troops. Unit 7 is now reduced to 190. That includes the 38 Korea veterans in the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre. They are being well cared for.
Overall, the KVA of Canada is now at a low of just over 1,000 members and is diminishing rapidly every year. For example, within our unit, there are only approximately 50 members who are still active. We're all in our eighties and nineties. Many are in retirement homes, and those still in their own homes don't travel too far anymore.
Recently I reached out to some of our units and individuals within our Ottawa unit and received feedback on this question: “Describe how well you are being treated by Veterans Affairs Canada”. Everyone's answer was nearly identical, such as, for example: “No complaints”; “More than I expected”; “We're being well cared for”; and, “If it were not for VAC, I'd be on the street.”
I posed the question about the local offices being closed. In Ottawa, that has not adversely affected our members; however, our unit has several members in the Chatham area who initially voiced concern about having to travel to Windsor for treatment. However, VAC is taking care of transportation and pocket expenses for them, so no complaint was registered.
With regard to disability pensions and VIP assistance, they are often mentioned in terms of expressing appreciation. Many have been vocal in saying how much consideration has been given towards helping Korea veterans who now suffer from a myriad of health problems, such as PTSD, alcoholism, heart failure, various cancers, lung disease, asbestosis, arthritis, hearing loss, etc. Feedback indicates that, for whatever reason, VAC seems to have excelled in putting forth a great deal of compassion in providing meaningful assistance to Korea veterans.
Although the care aspect seems to be on the favourable side for the octogenarians in our association of veterans, I do not have any idea of the condition of the remainder of Korean War veterans or how they are managing. It is estimated that there are 7,000 or 8,000 Canadian Korean War veterans who have remained distant, insofar as never having joined the Royal Canadian Legion or any veterans organization. To my knowledge, there are no stats for us to use to draw any conclusion regarding their well-being or the accuracy of their numbers.
One more point I'd like to mention is the downsizing of the Canada Remembers directive in Ottawa. It is certainly gratifying to have the partnership deal with our veterans and Veterans Affairs Canada. However, it has become somewhat burdensome now to have our very senior veterans thrust into the business of negotiating, contracting, and purchasing, etc., to accommodate for parades, services, and various other requirements that formerly were accomplished by the Canada Remembers team. Perhaps VAC is thinking of the future and perhaps advancing a little too rapidly in getting prepared for when the inevitable occurs.
Even though the Korean War was often called “the forgotten war”, I believe Veterans Affairs Canada has done a colossal job in its care of our men and their families.
Thank you very much.
Oh, can I ever. I'd be happy to.
First of all, let's talk about the bringing in of the Pension Act once again. The Pension Act is based on $32,000 tax free at 100% disability. The average PTSD pension so far is about 30%. That means you would receive 30% of the $32,000 tax free for the rest of your life. It's pretty hard to live on $1,100, and you wouldn't be entitled to the old program called the exceptional incapacity allowance because you have to be over 98% disabled to receive that, so you wouldn't get the extra $1,500 or $3,000 a month.
Just going to the old Pension Act isn't the answer for those suffering from PTSD. The thing is, if you have PTSD and you've been deemed totally and permanently incapacitated—and they're changing the name of that—then I would suggest that if you're totally disabled, you should be moved up to 100% and then offered the Pension Act at $32,000 and offered the exceptional incapacity allowance, which is another $32,000 or $3,000 a year tax free. Then your superannuation pension, if you have that, isn't deducted as it is now on the earnings loss benefits.
We need to have the committee look at the fact that not everybody is at 100% disability.
I'd like to thank you all for coming and for your service.
Monsieur Thibeau, I'm glad you mentioned Tommy Prince. I'm from Winnipeg, so Tommy Prince is talked about a lot. His name appears all over the community. He lived a lot of his civilian life there.
I'm also a physician, and I work in an inner city hospital where a lot of our patients are first nations. One of the things we know from the history of Tommy Prince and from what our first nations deal with is that racism is a terrible burden on the first nations community, both through society, at the street level, and in the systemic racism that they face. It was one of the things that was a challenge for Tommy Prince and for the patients I see.
In your dealings with Veterans Affairs, have you seen any evidence of any forms of systemic racism, perhaps not deliberate, that might be a barrier to care for first nations veterans?
I'll give you an example.
Yesterday I had dental surgery, so last night I was in severe pain. I had a prescription in my pocket and went to the pharmacy. I have A-line and B-line coverage on my Veterans Affairs card, which means I'm covered for everything, and my prescription was declined. That was just getting a prescription.
Not long ago they got rid of the Veterans Affairs treatment authorization centres all across Canada. This was the overruling body for Blue Cross. Now there are no treatment authorization centres. Years ago they got rid of the people who were in Moncton in the Blue Cross office, so now Blue Cross is on their own, and by the way, they only work Atlantic banking hours, so if you go after hours.... I'm in the west, so the pharmacist couldn't even call them, because they're closed.
Just on prescriptions, when we're talking about service delivery, these are the implications of cutting and cutting. Just on that portion, we need to change the way we do things.
You've heard over and over from the testimony that there are so many programs and nobody knows them all. A case manager told me this morning that Blue Cross authorized four pills the next day, but my pharmacist didn't receive this information. My case manager didn't even know this was policy, and she's been there 32 years. There are so many programs and policies for veterans that it's confusing.
The best way is meet the veterans and find their needs. If they have a treatment plan, authorize the medications for their treatment plan. This is simple. Let's change the way we've done things for 100 years and instead let's meet the needs of the veteran in transitioning, treatment, rehabilitation, and lifelong support.
Thank you for that. I jotted those down when you spoke before.
Mr. Thibeau, on the notion of service delivery again, I think you made some important points, especially for the remote communities. Despite the fact that we're going to come up with much better technical things, the face-to-face component is critical, and the training of the people is also critical. Is that fair to say?
It was interesting when Mr. Black referred to the “forgotten war”. I was born in 1944, so I remember the Korean War and the notion that people weren't paying as much attention to it as they had to the Second World War. We'd been through the Second World War and we knew how important that was, so these men and women were forgotten to a large extent.
That compares, Mr. Thibeau, with your experience from the first nation communities that seem to embrace warriors, if I can use that term, the people who did go off to war, in much more of a community setting. Is it fair to say that in the first nations, there would be more respect and understanding of people who went to war?
When you do that, you have actually said to the veteran, “We are interested in you now.”
I want to go back and just touch on this very briefly. I want you to understand that.... I teach aboriginal awareness, and I talk about the military component of awareness and the fact that the highest percentage of ethnic groups that entered any of the war campaigns were aboriginals from Canada, who did not have to serve. In most of the treaties, there was a clause that said they would never have to pick up arms to fight for queen and country, or king and country.
Then I go back to a true story. An individual was fighting on the battlefields in France or Germany during the Second World War. The mother was at home with the five-year-old child, with the Indian agent and the policeman showed up to take that child away to residential school.
You ask why those first nations or those indigenous people actually picked up arms to fight for this country. In their mind, they thought things were going to improve.
I listen to everything that goes on with all the consultations and all the groups, and I say, “Welcome to the real world, folks.” We have been behind the eight ball for a long time. Are things getting better? I think so. However, it is you guys who are going to make it work.
As I have said many times before, the item in the budget that met the stakeholders' three priorities was increasing the earnings loss benefit. We asked for 100%. We got 90%. I think that is the biggest impact.
As I have said before, the only problem is that they demoted those who are in the reserves and those who served in the 1990s, those who didn't get the pay raises in the late 1990s from Paul Martin. Those who were sergeant and below will now be paid as privates. First Veterans Affairs said they were going to demote them to a senior private rank, so the senior private rank was a demotion. Then they said, “We will give you 90% ELB.” That means a person being paid as a senior private will get a $130 increase, and those in senior ranks will get a $12,000 to $18,000 increase a year.
Under the old Pension Act, which all these people are fighting for, it is $32,000 for everybody. Under this new increase of 90% ELB, however, the private is going to get just over $40,000. The assistant deputy minister of policy said that this is just over the poverty level that has been designated, so that is the reason they reduced them to senior private. Mind you, the major is still going to get $100,000 plus his PIA—permanent impairment allowance—so he gets about $132,000, while the private has to support his family.