I'd like to call the meeting to order. I'd like to thank everybody for attending today and welcome everybody in the audience.
Today the committee commences a study of service delivery to veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. It will also examine supplementary estimates. Today we'll be calling our first witness, the veterans ombudsman, Mr. Guy Parent. That will be our first hour.
In the second hour we'll have the assistant deputy minister of human resources and corporate services branch in Veterans Affairs, Elizabeth Stuart, and the director general of finance, human resources, and corporate affairs.
As we agreed at the first meeting on procedure, the routine motion that was adopted states that witnesses have 10 minutes to make an opening statement. Members will then take turns questioning the witnesses, and we can make that order known as we go. In round one, if we don't have it in front of us, the first questions will be Conservative for six minutes, Liberal for six minutes, NDP for six minutes, and then Liberal for six minutes.
Starting with that we will call the ombudsman.
Good morning, sir. We'll give you 10 minutes. You said you might only need nine, but we could extend that to 11. The floor is yours.
Mr. Chair, committee members, thank you for inviting me to appear before you as you begin your study of service delivery at Veterans Affairs Canada.
Delivering high-quality services on a timely basis to veterans and their families is a key component of the responsibility of Veterans Affairs Canada. For you to take up the study of service delivery at the beginning of your mandate speaks to the importance you place on it.
You now have the opportunity before you to not only influence today's service delivery and standards for Canada's ill and injured veterans and their families, but to also shape tomorrow. To get it right I encourage you to set your sights on the big picture, the outcomes, and the interrelationships of other support elements in VAC's arsenal.
You may ask why I am emphasizing outcomes. Two weeks ago I spoke to the Senate subcommittee on veterans affairs about the importance of keeping a laser-like focus on outcomes. The reason is that understanding the outcome we are trying to achieve should be the starting point rather than the end point. If you use that approach you will find the root causes of problems and be better able to solve them.
Let's start with the question of why some veterans and their families are still struggling. Simply put, benefits are too complex, not only for veterans but for VAC staff as well. After decades of layering regulations and policies one on top of the other, with no apparent regard for how such overlapping would affect veterans and their families, a system has been created that is difficult to administer on the best of days.
Everyone involved in veterans' issues recognizes these problems, but they still remain. They need to be solved as quickly as possible because every day they cause frustration to ill and injured veterans and their families.
To right the situation and give veterans the services that they deserve, it is time to start focusing on outcomes for veterans and not outcomes for programs.
Veterans programs typically only measure program outcomes. They do not measure the effect that a particular program has on veterans. For example what does giving a veteran a $500 a month benefit accomplish in terms of creating a better life or a better outcome for that veteran? It is true they will have a little more money, but did it make a difference in their lives?
When looking at outcomes for our current programs, we need to ask the hard questions. What does it mean to provide financial stability? What does it mean to meet the basic needs of veterans? What does it mean to improve veterans' wellness? How do we measure success with those outcomes? What does the service experience feel like to the veteran? We struggle to answer those questions. If we cannot answer them, how do we know we have it right? How far do we still need to go?
Let me take this a step further. Did you know that there is no benchmark defined for a fair level of financial compensation to veterans for either income replacement or pain and suffering? There are benchmarks for individual programs, but we do not understand the overall outcomes we are trying to achieve with these benchmarks. At the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, we look at these programs and services through the lens of fairness measured by the accessibility, sufficiency, and adequacy of programs. If we do not have an agreed-upon comparison point, how can we measure whether our efforts are being effective?
What is the added value of applying an outcomes focus to veterans’ service delivery? Let me give you an example of how we could shape tomorrow. What if the desired outcome was a veteran-centric, one-stop shop approach to VAC service delivery? This could mean that at the beginning of the release process, Veterans Affairs Canada would conduct a file review and adjudicate any and all benefits to which the veteran would be entitled. The veteran would then be presented with the results without having to apply for a single benefit.
The key question is this. If this were done in a timely manner, would it better prepare the veteran for transition, reduce workload at Veterans Affairs Canada, and increase trust in the system? I believe it would. I also believe that Veterans Affairs Canada should be proactive, so veterans don’t have to be experts in navigating its complex system.
What about veterans with mental health conditions who complain about how they are continually traumatized by having to tell their stories again and again to justify why they should receive benefits? With a veteran-centric one-stop shop model, veterans would only have to tell their story once to a health care professional. As well, we know that service contributes to certain conditions, so why do we put the veteran through the hassle of proving a service relationship when common sense says there is one?
For example, would it be unreasonable to assume that a soldier working around large-calibre guns may have diminished hearing, that an air force search and rescue technician with hundreds of parachute jumps may have injured knees, or that a submariner working in cramped quarters may have back problems?
There are some who are going to balk at these ideas because this is not the way we do business today. But I say to you that the way we do business today is not working as well as it should. If it were, we would not have as many frustrated, ill and injured veterans as we do.
Let's go beyond today's ideas, look at the outcomes, the end results that we want to achieve, and figure out the steps needed to achieve that optimal result for veterans and their families. It only makes sense that intervening early with a one-stop shop approach would likely result in better outcomes for veterans. From a national security perspective, such an approach would better support recruitment and retention than the current stream of veterans' bad news stories. From a VAC service delivery perspective, front-loading the benefits could eliminate the bureaucracy of determining eligibility at the point of need. From a veteran's perspective, needs would be met in an effective and timely manner.
If I had a magic wand, what would I do to transform the current state of affairs? I would start with a clean sheet of paper and I would list all the outcomes that we need to achieve to support veterans and their families, such as financial security for life, the best possible health care, fair compensation for pain and suffering, a successful transition to civilian life, and a veteran-centric service delivery with timely decisions.
Then, I would design the benefits and administrative processes to achieve those outcomes, because without a clear understanding of veterans' outcomes, tinkering with existing benefits is a recipe for complexity and disappointment.
Now let me take just a moment to share with you our analysis of the current status of the ACVA recommendations. Some recommendations have been addressed, and you will find as an annex an updated chart of their progress. However, some of the major substantive recommendations have yet to be implemented. As my office has reported previously, increased earnings loss benefit, better permanent impairment allowance grade determination, and compensation for family caregivers need to be addressed, because the implementation of these recommendations will significantly improve outcomes for veterans and their families.
In conclusion, as you travel across the country, please take the time to meet and listen to veterans and their families, as well as to VAC front-line workers, and see their challenges through their own eyes. If you combine that experience with evidence-based analysis and an unyielding focus on outcomes, you may be able to accomplish what others tried to but could not achieve in the almost 100 years since the Pension Act came into existence.
If you do, as a veteran with over 50 years of service to Canada, I will be at the front of the line to congratulate you.
In the meantime, my team and I stand ready to help you achieve your goal.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Thank you, Mr. Parent, for your thoughtful comments and your dedication to the job you do.
At the start you mentioned that if you give someone money, where is it going to leave them, and that the money's not necessarily the issue. I'd like to focus on that part, if I can. I think what you said makes a lot of sense.
When we focus on the issue of money, we start to look at how we provide services to the veterans. The issue would be—and I believe you touched on it a bit in your statement—the moment that they become released, knowing up front all the services available to them, versus trying to find them for themselves.
I'm wondering if you could expand upon that from your experience. It is new for me, and probably for a lot of committee, as to how that process rolls out when someone is released. What information are they given? Are they told, “Okay, now you're a veteran, let's move on”, or are they actually given the steps that are available to them based on what's gone on, and touching on the issues. You have someone who might come from the artillery and been a gunner all his life. He's not experiencing hearing difficulty right then, but there's a good potential that this individual is going to have hearing loss later in their life.
I'm just wondering whether those are issues that are presented. Could you just expand on that for us?
Thank you very much. It's a good comment.
I would say right now that the biggest challenge, of course, is the transition of a military member to civilian life. Some people call it reintegration, but it is not reintegration for a military career professional who has spent 35 years in the military environment. It's not reintegration; it is integration. It's brand new, and there is a lack of good communication during the transition process, in fact on both sides: the military and Veterans Affairs Canada. In essence what needs to happen is that there has to be proof of service and there has to be an injury that has been diagnosed—and the relativity of those two—to be an eligible client of Veterans Affairs Canada.
Now, this is a multi-step process. The first, let's say, to get a disability award, is one step where all of these things have to come into play. Then there has to be determination, adjudication, as to the amount of disability, the amount of the award. Subsequent to that, if a person wants to go to a vocational rehabilitation program, again there's an application process. There's an acceptance process by the department.
What we're saying is that we need a one-stop shop where all these things are determined in advance, so that when there is a need it's already been determined that the eligibility is there. It's just the quantity that has to be decided.
Right now we are doing, jointly with the military ombudsman, a study of the transition process. The problems we see, which we've already identified, are a lot of duplication of effort, a lot of complexity, and a lot of misinformation. I will give you a quick example. A case manager, for instance, in the military side is a health care professional. On the VAC side, the case manager is a social services professional. To an injured veteran, especially somebody who has a non-visible injury, it's very confusing to say that now you will switch case managers but they don't do the same thing.
All of these things contribute to the complexity. It's a long answer, but....
If I can expand on that a little, we know what happens a lot of times when veterans retire from the service is that they tend to congregate in the last posting, in that area where they've been most comfortable. Certain areas tend to have a lot more veterans. For example, around Trenton, a lot of people from the air base tend to congregate in that area. It's the same for Kingston, etc.
I come from Saskatchewan. We have a lot of veterans out there who are dispersed throughout the huge community. They're well aware of the fact that they are in, say, White Bear, Saskatchewan, which is two hours to anywhere, and more than likely if they're going to go see their.... They understand. They're not expecting services to come to them. They are prepared to go. However, if you've travelled the roads in Saskatchewan, the weather changes in a heartbeat and the next thing they know they're stranded because of a snowstorm or something. Oftentimes, the process is in a place that they're supposed to have pre-approval for authorization for that service, and it's difficult to do.
Have you seen any of that, and can you maybe comment on your experiences travelling across the country when discussing things with veterans?
As well as thanking you for being here, I would like to thank you for your service to our country. As the mother of two serving members, I am pleased to be here today.
I want to talk a little bit about your report. We talk a lot about outcomes, and I'm delighted that we are going to be addressing financial security, health care, and so on.
I just want to premise my question. You touched on it. When someone decides to serve their country it is with incredible pride that they wear the uniform. The decision to leave active service, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, is a life-changing experience, as it would be with anyone who loses a job. I love the idea of a guichet unique for our Canadian Forces members and veterans.
We talked a little bit about documentation that's not getting shared between services, and so on. We all know that in the military you have to write a briefing memo for every briefing memo, so the idea of this information not being shared is a little disturbing.
One thing that's not apparent in your presentation and your speech today is the how.
I'll elaborate. Maya Angelou's famous quote is that people will forget what you said, they'll forget what you do, but they'll never forget how you made them feel. We've heard the horror stories through social media and by talking to vets of how they were made to feel, jumping through hoops to prove disability. When someone has lost their legs, they are not growing back.
I have not seen any recommendations in terms of training for those who are front-line workers, or folks who are working, in terms of service delivery. I'd like to know if you could elaborate a little bit on that.
It's a good point. I have to start by saying that the front-line people have the wellness of the veterans and their families at heart, but sometimes they're bogged down in processes as well, in complex laws, regulations, and processes. I think that's important. Care, compassion, and respect have to be there right from the start when a veteran applies for benefits and until he receives the service.
As for the “how”, I've mentioned a few ideas about how to shape tomorrow and what we need to look at. I think the how should come from the testimonies that you're going to get in front of this committee, with different ideas from different people. Certainly, it has to be veteran-centric. I think that's the important piece of this puzzle.
People have different needs. Some have families and some don't. Some are older and some are younger. Some will be 65 and won't have any benefits. A lot of these things need to be.... It can't be just any veteran. It has to be veteran-centric based on the evolving needs of that particular veteran and his family. I think that's the way we have to go.
In the future, it's one of those things where the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to be proactive so the veteran doesn't have to be, and so he doesn't have to navigate the complexities of the system if everything is there, in clear terms, when he transitions from the forces.
I agree with what you said. It's quite a transition. It's a change of life. The military is a profession, not a job. It's the same as a doctor or a dentist not being able to carry on with his trade because of an injury. It's a lifestyle change.
We recommended the identity card in one of our reports. The essential point is that people in the service must prepare themselves for the possibility of being injured or discharged for medical reasons. Taking that responsibility is a priority. A second career is possible, given that a military career is dangerous.
An identity card would specifically allow people who are part of the military to already have an account or a file number on record with Veterans Affairs Canada. Proof of their service and their diagnosis would already be in the file when they need to access certain benefits at the end of their service.
Members of the military lose their military identity when their service ends. It is not reintegration, it is integration into civilian life. By receiving a card authorized by the federal government and showing that, henceforth, they are Canadian veterans, they maintain their military identity. That is important, in my view.
Some veterans are transients, homeless. So if they had a card in their pocket proving that they served and that they have an account with Veterans Affairs Canada, half of the adjudication process is already complete.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.
I'm very new to my job in this committee. This is a huge file, with so much at stake. I have a friend involved in the Catholic Church who said you don't turn a dinosaur around on a dime. Clearly, we have a lot of issues here, partially because of all the changes that have been taking place within our forces and trying to meet those needs.
It was interesting to hear the conversation turn very quickly to programs and whether or not they're successful. The whole concept of looking at it from a veteran's outcome perspective is a change of mindset and thinking that I think would be really good.
I'm not sure if I'm hearing you correctly, so I'm just going to say what I think I'm hearing and then you can tell me if I'm on the right track. When we talk about a one-stop model, it would take so much pressure off our veterans. I think that's a wonderful direction to go in. It's also the type of thing that you look at.... How do you test that, or do you make a huge transition change to your ideology and how you approach this whole area?
Would we be looking at, obviously, the changes going forward, or trying to change the processes that are already in place for so many veterans? Do you know what I mean?
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, vice-chairs, and committee members. It's a pleasure to be here with you and I look forward to discussing the Veterans Affairs 2015-16 supplementary estimates (C) submission.
My name is Elizabeth Stuart. I was recently appointed assistant deputy minister of human resources and corporate services branch for Veterans Affairs Canada. I'm here today with Maureen Sinnott, who is the director general of finance division and acting chief finance officer in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Honourable members, as you know, the department is responsible for providing benefits and programs to veterans, Canadian Armed Forces personnel, and their families in recognition of their service to Canada, and for ensuring that their achievements and sacrifices are honoured and remembered through commemorative activities. The department is proud of this dual mandate, just as it is proud to continue to do everything in its power to enhance the programs and services that are important to Canada's veterans and their families.
As you have seen from our 2015-16 supplementary estimates (C) submission, Veterans Affairs Canada's overall total planned spending this fiscal year, including the supplementary estimates, is almost $3.67 billion. That's close to a $150-million or a 4.2% increase over our 2015-16 main estimates budget of $3.52 billion.
As these supplementary estimates show, our first priority is to make sure that veterans and their families have the support they need when they need it, for as long as they need it. For the younger veterans, this often means ensuring that they are able to successfully transition to civilian life. That's why the largest chunk of this new funding, $81.3 million, is for veterans programs and services, the majority of which flow to Canadian Armed Forces veterans through the new Veterans Charter. Another $25.5 million is to enhance the delivery of services and benefits by increasing front-line and case management staffing levels to provide increased support to veterans and their families. These funds will also be used to improve the timeliness of disability benefit decisions so that veterans have earlier access to benefits.
A further $2.7 million in new funding is to support implementation of three new grant programs: the retirement income security benefit, the critical injury benefit, and the family caregiver relief benefit, which were initially approved through VAC's 2015-16 supplementary estimates (A) submission. However, this submission includes an additional $400,000 for the family caregiver relief benefit. It also includes funding to hire resources to implement these three programs, provide online training to primary caregivers, and improve system interoperability between Veterans Affairs and National Defence. With this supplementary funding, we continue to ensure that Canada is there for the men and women and their families who were there for Canada.
Our supplementary estimates also contain $1 million for the community war memorial program, which will allow the program to continue for one more year. This program was initially approved for five years in 2010 and extended for one year to cover the final cost of contributions for the construction of new monuments previously approved by the department.
There is also a return of $200,000 to Canadian Heritage for funds previously provided to VAC to help with a commemorative initiative; however, as the funds were not required, they were returned.
The last item of notice in VAC's supplementary estimates (C) submission is an increase of $3.8 million for an increase in employee benefits plan cost statutory funding, which relates to increased new personnel costs.
It is important to understand that VAC's budget fluctuates each year because of the demand-driven nature of its programs and services. VAC updates its client and expenditure forecast each year to ensure that all veterans who come forward receive the benefits to which they are entitled. Expenses, however, are only incurred for the veterans who actually come forward as qualifying for our programs and services.
As VAC's program budgets can only be used for the purpose for which they were intended, excess funds cannot be redirected for other purposes without explicit consent from Treasury Board. This reality has led to repeated criticism in the media in recent years around lapsed funds; that is to say, our not spending our entire budget. This is primarily attributed to the declining number of veterans we are supporting.
For example, we are forecasting a net decrease of about 11,000 war service veterans and survivors receiving Veterans Affairs Canada benefits this fiscal year. This is the single largest reason for the lapses in our overall spending.
VAC's 2016-17 report on plans and priorities sets our course for the coming year. These plans are driven by three basic principles: care, compassion, and respect.
Our top priority is to provide veterans with excellent service from their first moment of contact with our department. We will place veterans at the centre of everything we do: our philosophies, our ideas, and our operations. This means being proactive and responding quickly to veterans' changing needs with care, compassion, and respect.
Secondly, we will provide veterans with the services they need, when and how they need them, and in ways that work for them. Finally we will work closely with the Department of National Defence to make sure we fully support our Canadian Armed Forces members to make an easier transition to civilian life and focus on their well-being.
In closing, I would like to point out that in this year, as in previous years, approximately 90% of VAC's budget, or $3.3 billion, will flow directly to veterans, their families, and the other Canadians served by VAC.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Maureen and I would now be happy to answer any questions that you or other committee members may have about any part of these supplementary estimates.
I'll just ask permission of the committee here. Time-wise, if we did the first round of six minutes, and six minutes, and six minutes, that should take us closer to our time limit. Having said that, I spoke to a few of you before. Some of you might not have questions on this and some of you have very short questions, so if it is basically the consensus of the committee, we could start again with round one with the Conservatives, which would be six minutes. We could divide that among the three of you, if that's fine, and then that should wrap it up with you, Ms. Mathyssen. Then we can vote on the estimates, if that's fine.
Do I see agreement with that, if we're going to make it to House duty today?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Okay, seeing consensus, we will start round one of the questions with Ms. Wagantall.
But if I can, we do have a disability award. We have an earnings loss benefit, because if an individual is injured and they're unable to work, then they are losing income.
When you asked about programs on top of programs, a new program, which was introduced in May in supplementary estimates (A) and listed as a grant, was the retirement income security benefit. Essentially those benefits stopped at age 65 and the question, rightly so, was what they were going to do after 65; hence, there was an examination of that and a determination that there should be a benefit that would extend beyond age 65.
The other new benefit that you would have seen is the critical injury benefit. Last year, an individual was injured in an explosion of some sort overseas. There are cases where individuals would be severely injured, and it would be sudden and traumatic. They could be hospitalized overseas for a long period of time and then back in Canada they'd be unable to function the way they normally did. Normally our disability awards are finished when a condition has stabilized. Due to the miracle of modern medicine the individual who was so severely injured could be put back together, be back at work, and fine. But during that period of time when they were hospitalized severely injured, and the family was going through such trauma, there was no compensation for that. The critical injury benefit was the compensation to deal with that, and it's a one-time, tax-free payment for that one incident.
When you ask if the benefits are stacked on top of each other, in some respects it may seem that they are but there was no benefit to deal with that particular thing. Disability awards are meant to deal with a condition that has occurred. A decision's made, the disability has stabilized, and then your award is based on a certain.... For example, earnings loss is based on lost earnings and your ability to earn in the future.
Let me put it this way. Yes, we do expect a decline of 11,000 war service veterans. In order to make somewhat of a separation, we refer to them sometimes as our traditional war service veterans and then talk about our new or more modern-day veterans. There is an age distinction between the two, for sure, and there will be a decline. There's nothing, sadly, that any of us can do about that.
With respect to whether or not we will be able to meet the needs in the future, we do forecasts. We forecast fairly generously in this department in order to ensure that we have sufficient funds to be able to provide for all of the eligible people who come forward to request services from the department.
Now, when we say we lapse, we do lapse some money, because we don't have the right or the ability to vary from what Parliament voted the money for to this department.
Will we have money in the future? We go back in our main estimates. Once we make our forecast, then our main estimates determine, as of December of the previous year, what the government's spending plan is.
Obviously it doesn't take everything into account, so we adjust our forecasts every year. The supplementary estimates (A), (B), and (C) are the three opportunities we have to go back to the government and say, you made new decisions after December of the previous year, or you made a decision in the budget, or you made some decision that you would like us to go in this direction and add a new program, and we're coming back looking for additional funds in order to do it. We have the opportunities to go back regularly, and our forecasts will show where we expect to have increased demand.
The nature of our funding is that our programs are quasi-statutory. When I say that, it means not that they're statutory and governed by law and that the money is mandated and has to be provided. We have to go back to Parliament saying, “This is the amount of money that is required or needed for these programs.”
But it's a great thing to be quasi-statutory, in one sense. It's a thing that is need- and demand-driven and entitlement-driven. It's not that the government can say, “Thanks, but we're not going to fund those.” They're quasi-statutory. As soon as you need additional money and an eligible person comes forward, then that person must be provided for.
We like to say that if 10 people come forward or 10,000 come forward, we go back to ask for additional funds in order to provide for them. In the future, if people come back with post-traumatic stress disorder or other injuries that didn't manifest themselves or didn't show up, or if they didn't want to come forward when they left the military and it took them two, three, four, or 10 years to come forward, we still have the ability to go back and say, we have a bigger need than we thought we had at the start of the year.
The transfer of Ste. Anne's to the Province of Quebec was mentioned. I want to underscore my concern about the fact that post-Korean vets don't have access to long-term care in places such as Ste. Anne's, now that the transfer is complete, or my home hospital, Parkwood, and the need is there.
I know there's nothing you can do about it—this is something that happened as far back as the early 1960s—but I want to underscore that it disadvantages post-Korean vets, who are reliant upon the province, when it's a federal responsibility to look after our veterans.
I wonder, too, whether you have any indication explaining why the following programs are seeing such an increased demand: disability awards, allowances, health rehabilitation, and support services. From your perspective, why has there been that increase?
Having said that, on behalf of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, I thank you both for taking time out of your busy schedules today. I guess we will be seeing a lot of each other over the next three to four years.
Thank you very much.
With this, we need to call a vote on 1c under Veterans Affairs Canada in the amount of $29,528,515, and vote 5c, in the amount of $81,062,000.
Vote 1c—Operating expenditures..........$29,528,515
Vote 5c—Grants and contributions..........$81,062,000
(Votes 1c and 5c agreed to)
The Chair: Shall the chair report votes 1c and 5c under Veterans Affairs Canada of the supplementary estimates (C) 2015-16 to the House?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: We need to suspend for a minute and come back in camera to quickly discuss committee business. I need you for about three minutes, if we could clear the room. We just need to get set for next week.
On behalf of the committee, I'd like to again thank everybody in the audience for attending today, and everybody who took part.
[Proceedings continue in camera]