Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon to all.
It's my understanding that this committee has taken great interest in the two recent reports I have released, “Determining Service Attribution for Medically Releasing Members” and “Simplifying the Service Delivery Model for Medically Releasing Members”. Both reports contain recommendations to the Minister of National Defence, and I have been invited here to speak to them today.
Our military personnel from across the country have voiced their concerns over a number of critical issues related to their service from recruitment through to retirement, but none more frequently than those pertaining to the subject of transition between military and civilian life.
Every year, over 50% of the complaints that come to my office have to deal with this very issue. Whether they are releasing from the Canadian Armed Forces for medical reasons or non-medical reasons, what they face is a complex system that I believe needs to be fundamentally changed. Tack on the additional administrative burden of applying for benefits and services at Veterans Affairs Canada, and I think we have reached a tipping point for our members.
From our engagements with the men and women in uniform across the country on issues surrounding medical release from the Armed Forces, my office has produced a number of reports containing evidence-based recommendations aimed at solving these issues. Our reports are a call to action.
I believe that the government has a tremendous opportunity to fix the system that too often allows vulnerable people to slip through the cracks. We have provided plenty of evidence supporting the need for real change in key areas. We do not need to commission more studies. We need decisions.
Some of the decisions that need to be made may not be popular and some may not be as politically palatable as we would like, but they are the right ones for the men and women who serve or have served this country.
I can assure you that many of the tragic circumstances that occur in your constituencies and that often reach national public attention can be avoided.
I'd like to summarize for you today what I have recommended to help protect the members of the Canadian Armed Forces from undue hardship. There is a fundamental disconnect between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada wherein a member must navigate departure from one before entrance into the other. Most of this has to do with the determination of attribution of service and the current service delivery model.
On May 18, I delivered a report to the Minister of National Defence in which I recommended that the Canadian Armed Forces determine whether an illness or injury was caused or aggravated by a military service and that the determination be presumed by Veteran Affairs Canada to be sufficient evidence in support of an application for service or benefits. I made this report public on September 13 and copies have been provided to the committee.
In conducting their adjudications under the new Veterans Charter, Veterans Affairs Canada as the administrator considers mostly documentary evidence generated by the Canadian Armed Forces. The evidence consists largely of the member's medical records and possibly other career-related records. This begs the question of why a protracted bureaucratic process is required for VAC to review records prepared by the Canadian Armed Forces when it is possible for the Canadian Armed Forces to determine whether a medically releasing member's condition is related to or aggravated by military service.
Given that the Canadian Armed Forces has control of the member's career and has responsibility for the member's medical health throughout their career, such a determination can and should be presumed to be evidence in support of a member's application for VAC benefits.
I believe that my recommendation of having the Canadian Armed Forces determine service attribution in conjunction with the change to the service delivery model would reduce wait times by 50% or more on the current 16-week service delivery standard. This standard does not include the time it takes to get medical records from the Canadian Armed Forces or if the member has to submit any other pertinent documents.
You may think that the development of a new service delivery model would require intensive study that would take months or even years to complete. On August 12, I submitted a report to the Minister of National Defence containing a potential new service delivery model. I made the report public last week. Again, copies have been provided for the committee.
My report recommends that the Canadian Armed Forces retain medically releasing members until all benefits and services, including Veteran Affairs, have been finalized and put in place prior to releases; that one point of contact be established—if you will, a concierge service—for all medically releasing members to assist in their transition; and that the Canadian Armed Forces develop a tool that is capable of providing members with information so that they can understand their potential benefit suite prior to release.
These are three strong, evidence-based, member-centric recommendations, ladies and gentlemen, that I believe are game-changers.
My three recommendations do not require new legislation, nor do they require the implementation of my recommendations surrounding attribution of service. I know that they are closely aligned, and anything we will do further would be enhanced by the Canadian Armed Forces' determination of attribution to service.
As we all know from their mandate letters made public, the Prime Minister has asked the ministers of Veterans Affairs and National Defence to reduce complexity, overhaul service delivery, and strengthen the partnership between the two. Both ministers and the chief of the defence staff have publicly acknowledged that the system needs fixing. The time is no longer to study, but to fix.
On Monday, it was reported that Veterans Affairs Canada has a backlog of 11,500 applications for benefits and services. I strongly believe implementing my recommendations to have the Canadian Armed Forces determine attribution of service and to restructure its service delivery model to ensure that no member is released before all benefits from the CAF and VAC are in place would greatly reduce the complexity leading to those delays.
As you may know, I spent nearly four years as deputy veterans ombudsman. I can tell you there has always been a backlog at Veterans Affairs Canada, and the size varies over the year. It still numbers in the thousands. Even when operating cuts were made to the department, the numbers did not change in any significant way.
Ladies and gentlemen, that indicates to me that this is a process issue, not a people issue. I am not recommending patchwork. I am recommending a fundamental shift in the way business is done. The Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs are currently exploring options to close the seam. By having the Canadian Armed Forces implement my recommendations to take care of the members at the front end, Veterans Affairs will have a simplified environment in which to do its important work.
Ladies and gentlemen, I firmly believe we are at an opportune moment for the members of the Canadian Armed Forces and veterans in this country. There is a large contingent of veterans groups in Ottawa this week participating in the Veterans Affairs stakeholder summit, which wrapped up today. I attended as an observer. I had a chance to catch up with many of the leaders in the veteran community, and I can tell you both reports were received very positively. Many of them wished that my recommendations had been implemented when they were releasing, and their hope now is that they will be implemented for those releasing in the future.
The common theme from my engagements with these groups this week has been a need to fundamentally change the current service delivery on both the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs sides, and I couldn't agree more. I believe my recommendations offer the government a path forward. Our people should be our top priority, our true no-fail issue and, as they say, it's go time.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I stand ready for questions.
There are two things here.
First of all, Veterans Affairs Canada has My VAC Account. They do track the application process, where it is in the stream, and so forth. That's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is when a Canadian Armed Forces member is releasing, there are many things at the end of a career, penson being one, and last posting being a another. All those things should be common knowledge to everybody. There is no one-base IT platform where someone could go to look up departmental orders or compensation and benefit indexes. I think we need to bring that information together because it is part of the full package that the member needs to understand is in the realm of the possible prior to release. That's what I'm talking about.
Sometimes you can walk into an orderly room in Vancouver and ask a question, and ask the same question in St John's, Newfoundland, and you're going to get two different answers. That's no one's fault. It's just because, again, orders change, and they never get shared, or whatever that might be.
I think that's the type of platform I'm talking about. To carry that further, at that point in time, there could be a very easy transition or connection with My VAC Account, or once the member has all the information while serving, they transfer over to Veterans Affairs Canada. My VAC Account is there, which is a fairly robust tool that's getting better all the time. That's the tool I'm talking about.
Thank you for the question. It's a difficult one.
We talked earlier about resources and what would be required. I do believe that the surgeon general's shop may need some additional resources to help with this, but we need to go back to the beginning. When an accident or an injury takes place, the Canadian Armed Forces fills out a document called the “CF 98”. On that document, you tell where and when the soldier got hurt. If the soldier was on service at the time, that's enough, in my opinion.
I don't see a conflict of interest. These medical officers are professionals. They're honourable. We ask them to do the worst, at times, and the best for this country, so I don't think we're talking about conflict of interest. I do believe there is a concern—there would be empathy, I understand that—but I think professional codes of conduct and service would override.
We can't continue to build systems for the exceptions. The general rule is that an honest group of people is trying to do an honest job. Are there some maligners in the system? Yes. You can find them anywhere in society. But I think we have at times built the system for the exception and not the rule.
I really can't answer that question. If we go back and look at how the process is supposed to work once the injury or illness takes place, and we fill out the proper forms.... Let's just step outside the Canadian Armed Forces for a second. Let's look at any workers compensation board across the country.
When there's an accident at work, the employer is responsible for filling out the paperwork and saying where and when that person got hurt. When the person goes to the workers compensation board, yes, he or she will be medically examined and will be questioned—where and how did this happen—but that's about the extent of it.
I'm saying I don't know what the ethical problem is. I don't know where the chafe point is. But if I'm filling out the CF 98, and making sure it's sent to the proper destinations, and all things are done, and I'm telling you the soldier fell off the back of the truck while he was on duty and it's attributable to service, maybe it's far above my pay grade, but I don't understand where there would be an ethical dilemma.
Now, I do know there are serving members who can draw benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada, and I think I made it very clear in my report and my memo that I am not talking about those who are still serving drawing benefits. I could probably see where there is a chafe point there. A member is drawing a benefit from Veterans Affairs Canada. The CAF may not know—I can see that. But for those medically releasing, we know if you don't meet U of S, universality of service, you're going. Once U of S has been determined, where's the ethical issue?
That's my opinion.