Good morning, Mr. Chair and honourable members.
I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to talk about the work of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and its role in service delivery to veterans.
The board is an administrative tribunal that provides veterans, members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP, and their families with an independent appeal process for disability benefits decisions that have been made by Veterans Affairs Canada. Our mission is to ensure that veterans receive the benefits they are entitled to under the law through timely, respectful hearings and fair, plain language decisions.
To be very clear, the board is not part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. We are an entirely separate organization and we operate at arm's length to provide a fair appeal process. As well, our mandate is limited to reviewing departmental decisions on veterans' disability benefits. We're not involved in any of the other programs and services that are delivered by Veterans Affairs Canada.
Before I tell you more about the board's program, I'd like to share a bit about myself. I'm a veteran with more than 18 years of service as a regular and reserve force naval officer. I'm a lawyer with more than 20 years of experience and graduate degrees in administrative law and ethics. I'm very proud to be in my current role leading the board as it serves veterans across Canada and provides them and their families with the benefits they're entitled to under the law.
I'd like to start by explaining how our hearing process works. Veterans who are dissatisfied with departmental decisions on disability benefits can apply to the board for an independent review. In any given year, between 8% and 10% of those who receive a departmental decision come before the board for redress. Those cases tend to be the most challenging and complex.
We provide veterans with two levels of redress: first, review hearings; and, if they are still dissatisfied, an appeal hearing.
Review hearings are conducted by panels of two board members in one of 22 locations across Canada. To my knowledge, we're the only administrative panel in Canada that has an even number of members. The reason for this is that the veteran need only convince one member of the panel of the merits of their claim. That's consistent with the benefit-of-the-doubt provisions we're required to apply. At these hearings, veterans can bring forward new evidence, give oral testimony, and have their case presented for free by lawyers from the Bureau of Pensions Advocates or service officers from the Legion. A very small percentage of them have acted on their own.
Our hearings are non-adversarial, which means there's no one on the other side arguing against the veteran. The review hearing is a very important opportunity for veterans. It is their first and only chance to appear before decision-makers to tell their story in their own words. I've seen the value of that, as I sit on a regular basis. Their testimony is often significant, as it can help them establish the required link between their disability and their service. If a veteran is dissatisfied with their review decision, they can then proceed to an appeal decision. That's a brand new hearing by a panel of three board members who were not involved in the case at review. While the legislation does not permit oral testimony at this level, the appeal hearing provides the veteran a further opportunity, through their representative, to provide statements and other information to the board that may clarify reasons of the decision.
I'd like now to talk to you about the board members who hear the cases.
Our members are dedicated Canadians who qualified for appointment to the board through a merit-based selection process. Today 13 of the board's 20 members have military, RCMP, policing, or health care backgrounds. Veterans and stakeholders have told us that all board members should have a good understanding of the military and RCMP work and culture, and we agree with that thought. All members receive hands-on training from serving personnel at Canadian Forces bases, where they learn about the physical and mental challenges that are inherent in various trades. They also receive continuous training on common and emerging medical conditions that may be related to military service.
Last year our board members issued 2,500 review decisions and 800 appeal decisions. As a result, about 1,600 veterans, almost half of those who came to us, received new or increased disability benefits from the board. I think those numbers speak clearly to the value of our independent appeal program. They also prompt some to ask whether these veterans could have received the right decision at an earlier stage.
That's why in 2013, in response to that question from a prior version of this committee, the board began tracking reasons that our panels rule favourably where the department did not. We asked our members to categorize the reasons. Was it because of the veteran's testimony? Was there new medical evidence? Could a more favourable decision have been made earlier?
One of the things we found as a result of that study is that new evidence and the veterans' testimony are the factors in the majority of cases—almost 81%. We share the reasons these decisions have been made with the department so they can look for opportunities to improve the initial application and decision-making process to ensure that veterans get the benefits they are entitled to at the earliest possible stage.
Obviously, decision outcomes are very important, but we also want to ensure that we're delivering that service to veterans in a fair, timely, and respectful way. One way we do that is by asking veterans about their experience in the process. In 2013, the board established an exit survey for applicants who had had a review hearing to get their feedback anonymously about their experience. During the last three years, about half of all veterans who had a review hearing have completed our exit survey, and I am very pleased to report that the vast majority of them have indicated that they had a good experience with the board.
We report the entirety of the survey in our annual report. Of particular importance is that 97% have told us that board members treated them with respect, and 91% said their hearing was conducted in a fair manner.
The survey also gives veterans the opportunity to make open-ended comments about the conduct of the hearing, and it gives us genuine and instructive feedback that we use to address things like methods of questioning. We have also improved our pre-hearing materials as a result of those comments.
What else are we doing to serve veterans better? Over the last few years, we've embraced and acted on feedback and recommendations from this committee, the veterans ombudsman, veterans organizations, and stakeholders. We made great strides in improving our appeal program.
First, we made a priority to improve our decision writing. We put significant effort into improving our decisions to make sure they're written in plain language and that reasons are clearly explained what has been decided and why. These efforts have yielded results at feedback sessions coordinated by the Legion. Serving members and veterans have told us that our decisions are clearer and easier to understand.
Second, we've increased transparency in our decision-making by publishing, starting last summer, all appeals and many reviews on the Canadian Legal Information Institute's website. As of this morning, there are more than 2,600 cases available for veterans and Canadians to read. Those decisions are depersonalized, but they are instructive as to how decisions are made and why entitlement was granted. I encourage you to visit the CanLII site to read some of our decisions.
Third, beyond fair hearings and clear decisions, we know we must provide timely service. We demonstrate our commitment to timeliness by establishing service standards for the time within our control and we meet them in the vast majority of cases. Our goal is to schedule, hear, and decide a case within 16 weeks of being advised by the veteran or their representative that they're ready to proceed. Last year, we met the standard in almost all of our cases, far exceeding our 80% target.
Our second service standard focuses on decisions with a goal of issuing 80% of the decisions within six weeks of the hearing. Again, we exceeded our target there, issuing 86% of those decisions within that timeframe. There are some cases that are complex and do require more time, and those are monitored on a biweekly basis to make sure that nothing slips through the cracks. We know there's still room for improvement, which is why we continue to focus on reducing our timeframes through flexible scheduling, close monitoring of our work, and modernizing our operations for people's hearings.
Lastly, we continue our focus on plain language in our general communications as well, not just our decisions, through expanded outreach to the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, veterans organizations, and other groups dedicated to supporting veterans and their families.
Ultimately, we want veterans to know their rights. If they are dissatisfied, we want them to come forward to tell us about their situation, to know they've been heard, and to have confidence in our decisions. Most of all, we want them to receive all the benefits that they are entitled to under law.
With that, Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank you for allowing me to talk to you today about the important work that we do on behalf of Canada's veterans. I hope I've been able to provide some information that enlightens you with respect to our commitment to fulfilling our service standards and providing better service to veterans.
I'd be happy to answer your questions.
I'm going to stop you there, because I don't want to run out of time and I have lots and lots of questions for you.
I want to make sure I understand this correctly. If a veteran presents himself at VAC, asks for benefits and so on and so forth, and goes through the process and unfortunately gets denied service, there is a checklist somewhere that is magically produced by VAC that says these are things that he provided and this is what he said, and these are the gaps. You get that. It's nice and dandy. You mentioned your checklist of decisions.
From there it takes 16 weeks, hopefully. You mentioned that usually 50% are overturned, and in almost 81% of those cases it's because of new evidence or a veteran's testimony.
Could we not have it so that somewhere along the way when a veteran first presents themself at VAC, they're given the decision criteria, to the effect, if you have osteoarthritic problems, you are going to need a doctor's note clearly indicating X, Y, and Z—that you're going to need this, this, and that?
The problem right now from what I'm understanding is that from the time a veteran shows up to the time the decision is overturned, we could be talking about 32 weeks, and it's not retroactive. They have not been getting any benefits. There's no incentive anywhere; no one is saying they are going to make that retroactive, that we made a mistake somewhere over here or we didn't ask you for the right paperwork.
How is a veteran supposed to know that they need X, Y, and Z? They are ill and injured. How are they supposed to know? Who's making the effort to try to make sure that the decisions are being made early enough so that we can get the folks the care and benefits they need? Could you elaborate on that, please?
The entitlement eligibility guidelines that are prepared by the Department of Veterans Affairs actually do address the questions you've raised. The first level adjudicators have those guidelines. They're also publicly available on the Internet.
The adjudicators actually ask—at least to my understanding, and I'm stepping a little bit outside my lane here—these sorts of questions. I understand, as well, the adjudicators have been given direction that before a denial decision is made, they are to speak to the veteran to ask them these sorts of questions and go through the file one last time before they come to that decision.
Then when they make that decision, it's not really a checklist. There's a decision letter that identifies in list format, often in bullets, what evidence was looked at and where the gap in that was. The veteran has already been asked once by the adjudicator, as a general rule now, if they have the evidence, the documents. Then the decision is rendered, and it's turned into a formal decision.
They don't actually then come right to us. Usually what ends up happening is that the veteran goes to see the Bureau of Pensions Advocates, takes their decision there, and says, what do I have to do? They go to see a doctor, they get evidence, etc. After they've gone through that process, that's when they come to us. Generally, the Bureau of Pensions Advocates brings them to us.