Good afternoon, Chair Ellis and members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
I am pleased to present the 2016-17 supplementary estimates (C) and the 2017-18 main estimates to Parliament on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada.
I'd like to thank the members of the committee for their dedication to veterans' issues, particularly for their recent focus on mental health and their study of service delivery.
Our government is committed to ensuring that eligible veterans, retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police members, and their families have access to the mental health support they need, when and where they need it. No doubt the work of this committee will add to our knowledge and understanding of how we can do better in this regard.
Our government continues to focus on increasing access to mental health care and expanding outreach to ensure improved supports and services for veterans at risk of suicide. That is why I am working closely with my colleague, the, to close the seam between our two departments and to ensure a smoother, easier transition for releasing military members.
Turning to the subject of this meeting, the 2016-17 supplementary estimates, I'd like to point out that the largest increases are for the earnings loss benefit and the disability award. Furthermore, the number of disability claims submitted to Veterans Affairs increased by 19% in fiscal year 2015-16. This is a good thing. It means more people are coming forward to get the help they need.
I will now turn to the main estimates for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The charged me with ensuring that we honour the service of our veterans, reduce complexity, and do more to ensure the financial security of Canada's veterans. I can say with pride that we have made lots of progress. The main estimates before you today reflect many of our accomplishments to date. In fact, they reflect a net increase of $1.06 billion over 2016-17. This is nearly 30% more than that in the previous fiscal year. This demonstrates that we have dramatically increased financial security and access to services for veterans and their families, and we are not done yet.
As of April 1, the disability award will be increased from $310,000 to a maximum of $360,000 and will be indexed to inflation. We will issue a top-up payment to anyone who has already received a disability award, meaning more money in the pockets of ill and injured veterans. Furthermore, this change will be retroactive to 2006, when the disability award was first introduced. This demonstrates our commitment to “one veteran, one standard”.
Also beginning this April, changes to the permanent impairment allowance will ensure that veterans are more appropriately compensated for the impact of service-related impairments on their career. The benefit will be renamed the “career impact allowance” to better reflect its intent of assigning different gradients to adequately reflect how an individual might have moved through their career had they not become ill or injured.
Increasing the maximum of the disability award and expanding access to the permanent impairment allowance were recommendations made by the Veterans Ombudsman, Mr. Guy Parent. I always value the ombudsman's feedback, and I am proud to be implementing substantive changes that were recommended to us by the ombudsman. Our ombudsman has indicated that this move has moved the marker forward in regard to access to fair compensation. We will continue to work towards building a veteran-centric model that supports a seamless transition from military to civilian life.
One increase in the operating expenses you will note is for the reopening of Veterans Affairs offices. I am very proud to say that our government has already opened seven of the nine offices closed by the previous government. This May we will reopen the remaining two, plus an additional office in Surrey, British Columbia.
We also expanded outreach to veterans in the north. VAC staff will visit northern communities every month to meet with veterans and their families and to connect them with services and benefits.
Commemorating all the brave men and women who serve is a core responsibility of Veterans Affairs Canada. Honouring the service of our brave soldiers, sailors, and aviators is essential to ensuring that we as a nation never forget their dedication and sacrifice.
The Canada Remembers program keeps alive and promotes an understanding of the achievements of and the sacrifices made by those who served in times of war, military conflict, peacekeeping, and beyond. Our government is investing approximately $11 million to commemorate the 100th anniversaries of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele, as well as the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe raid. We will continue to pay tribute to and acknowledge those who have made Canada the country it is today.
Over the last year and a half we have accomplished a great amount for Canada's veterans. We increased the earnings loss benefit from 75% to 90% of a veteran's pre-release salary. This will be indexed to inflation. This ensures those undergoing rehabilitation have the financial support they need during their recovery.
We've simplified the approvals process for a number of disability claims, such as PTSD and hearing loss, allowing us to respond to more claims faster. In fact, compared to the year before, we made 27% more decisions in the last fiscal year.
We are well on our way to delivering on our commitment to hire 400 new employees, with 381 of them hired to date. This includes 113 new case managers. We are making great progress in reducing the average veteran-to-case-manager ratio from 40:1 to 25:1.
In October we increased the amount of the survivor's estate exemption for the funeral and burial program so that more veterans and their families have access to dignified funerals.
While we have achieved a lot, we recognize that there is much, much more to be done.
We continue to dedicate resources to finding ways to improve the mental health services and supports available to veterans and their families. I know that this is the focus of your current course of study and that there is an increased awareness of this important issue. I maintain that we can always do better, and I recognize that while the majority of veterans receive the mental health support they need, we can do more to reach those who do not. I am looking forward to hearing your recommendations as to how we can continue to improve.
There is still work to be done to develop a lifelong pension, an option for that. We will continue to consult with stakeholders and parliamentarians to develop the best approach.
A crucial area where VAC can and must do better is in delivering timely benefit decisions. We are pursuing this on a number of levels. I am working with the to close the gap between National Defence and Veterans Affairs by reducing complexity, overhauling service delivery, and strengthening partnerships.
Veterans Affairs has done an extensive review of its service delivery model with the goal of putting veterans first in programs and services, making things simpler and easier to understand, and facilitating improved access. We consulted widely with veterans, staff, external experts, and Canadians, and we'll publish a final report that outlines key recommendations. We will have a plan to put 90% of the recommendations into action within three years and the full suite of changes in five.
The physical, mental, and financial well-being of our veterans is our overarching goal. Veterans Affairs Canada has done much, and with the estimates delivered today, we will be able to fulfill many of our promises.
Thank you so much.
There are two separate questions here, and I'll try to separate them.
You'll note that we did make our disability award retroactive. We went back to 2006, and people who had received a disability award of only up to $310,000, if they were 100% disabled, will now get $360,000. We thought that was the right thing to do. We brought that forward because we were committed to showing a one veteran, one standard approach, and that's what we try to do in every aspect of what we bring.
We are dealing with a system right now that has been made up of a patchwork of programs slapped together from our government to other governments, and that actually makes it awfully difficult. In my department, I have injured soldiers who are 20 years old and injured soldiers who are 100. It makes it very complex. That said, we are committed to bringing in a pension option that works for veterans and families.
In terms of the court case, we are governing in terms of bringing in good public policy for veterans and their families. That's what I can do; that's in my control. Many of the things in our mandate letter are issues that were brought up by the Equitas lawsuit. In fact, many of the people who are on the Equitas lawsuit are part of my advisory team on financial security, mental health, and others. I'm very proud that they are working with us on solutions to problems facing the veterans community that were ignored for an awfully long time. They are actually very happy with many of the solutions we've brought to bear.
That said, they, like you, want us to get it done. I recognize that.
Just understand that it was a euphemism. It was a slip. Chair Ellis, I apologize. You were looking at me with great scorn and disdain there for a second.
Many people in the military do their military service and transfer successfully. Still, we have a far too large number, roughly 27%, who struggle in some form or fashion, whether that be employment, education, addiction, mental health, illness, or injury, and that is why we have Veterans Affairs. That's why we need to professionalize the release. We have a lot of work to be done. This is not going to be solved overnight. I wish it were, but it's not.
We're working to ensure that we professionalize the release, and I am very happy with the commitment of the Minister of National Defence, the Chief of the Defence Staff, and our department, who are working together to solve these issues. It's a financial issue, a rehab issue, a return-to-work issue, a return-to-school issue. There are a whole host of things that are going to allow us to have more success. Those conversations are getting detailed, and I can tell you they're moving along.
Is that fair?
I think we have to start with this at a higher level. When I came into the department, there was no policy rationale for the provision of 10 grams a day of cannabis for a veteran for their medicinal purposes, whether for mental health, physical ailments, or whatever. We searched and we searched, and lo and behold, none was found.
Because cannabis is not a drug that is regulated by Health Canada—there are no provisions on that there or otherwise—I said we needed to get together with the medical community, veterans, stakeholders, and licensed producers to try to get a policy framework. It's not a drug regulated by Health Canada. We felt we were in a policy void, in a vacuum.
Through those meetings, our searching, our consultations with the medical community and otherwise, and other expertise—people are looking at this emerging field—we came across much information. The studies go both ways. In fact, there are some medical practitioners who believe it's harmful. Some say there's a benefit. Our government is trying to do things based on evidence and science and good policy.
We even came across information from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons stating that the vast majority of people should not be taking more than three grams a day. They look at that as an upper limit for people to safely use when dealing with any medical condition. It's evidence like this that we are coming across from talking with many doctors, with veterans.
We understood that many of them were, in their situation, finding their lives improved. We get that. This was no easy decision that we made, but we felt we had to do it.
We feel we have allowed for some flexibility. Of course, we will reimburse. Remember that Veterans Affairs Canada is a reimburser of marijuana. People can get medicinal marijuana, should they choose, from various licensed producers across this country. Right now we will only pay for three grams, and only when you go to your physician.
We've understood that treating everyone the same is not always going to be effective, so we've allowed some flexibility in the program. If you go to a specialist and they affirm your diagnosis and affirm that cannabis is a valid treatment for it, and they've looked at your medical file and agree with your physician that this is where you should go, then there is that ability for us to reimburse for more.
We felt that this was necessary. You have to remember that the health and wellness of veterans and their families is at the core of what we do, and our policy decisions are driven toward that end. In our view, this policy fits with that mandate, full stop.
It would all depend on which services we're talking about. If you're talking about our adjudicative services, the comments we get back are that they're too long and we need too much information. As part of the service delivery review and some other things we're doing, we're trying to facilitate that, to de-medicalize the process and make it a bit easier. Notwithstanding the fact that we're doing it with an approval rate in the mid-80s, the forms are too complicated and the process is too complicated.
If you're talking about case management, we get very positive comments back, but those are mostly in terms of the ill and injured. That's more of a hand-holding, more of a partnership, with the veteran. It would depend on what services we're talking about.
That said, though, we don't hear a lot from the silent majority, so we are in the process of doing a survey with veterans to actually go out and solicit their views on Veterans Affairs. We're hoping to have the results of that at some point in April.
As a follow-on to the statement made earlier by the deputy minister regarding the veterans in the public service hiring unit, we've stood up a team in late November and early December. It's very small at the moment, but we have a phased approach to improve the hiring of veterans in the public service. The phased approach looks to Veterans Affairs Canada being a role model, first and foremost. Obviously DND is very experienced, because the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence work in an integrated fashion.
We are seeking in the next phase to have a positive effect on hiring throughout the entire public service and then to branch out into industry. Also, we know there are a lot of not-for-profits and organizations that are already assisting in this manner.
Since the coming into force of , the Veterans Hiring Act, we have seen some take-up by priority veterans who have been medically released, either for reasons attributable to service or reasons not attributable to service. The Public Service Commission has a mandate to collect data on those veterans, but to date there is no mandatory reporting of hires in the public service who are veterans. For example, at Veterans Affairs Canada we have sent every new employee a voluntary survey. It's still not mandatory to self-identify as a veteran, and I would imagine that some veterans may not wish to do so, but it has improved our reporting.
I can give you some statistics. From the coming into force of the Veterans Hiring Act on July 1, 2015, we had 315 priority hires in the public service, 18 of them within Veterans Affairs Canada. The total of veterans employed at VAC who have self-identified through our survey currently is 115.
We are working with the Public Service Commission to try to improve our ability to collect data on veterans, and we have sent a letter asking to have a question regarding military service added to the public service employee survey.
We're working on several venues, and we haven't finished our work by any means as yet.
Thank you for the question, Mr. Chair.
First, we have been talking to the associations. I can't tell you if my director general of adjudications spoke in the last month, but in 2017 I was debriefed on a conversation he had with one of the associations, so there are some conversations going on.
We have trained our adjudicators on sexual trauma. We don't get a diagnostic for sexual trauma. We get a diagnostic for mental health. We get a diagnostic sometimes for a physical injury. Most times it's a mental health injury. We have trained our adjudicators to recognize it and to actually escalate it when there's any doubt, to make sure that we are properly covering it.
I think it was December when I was here, but since then I know we've overturned or actually looked at some pretty controversial and difficult cases. I don't want to get into them because they're personal, but they were very difficult cases.
As for the website, I'm not aware. I know we were working to put some stuff up, but I don't know if it's up or not. I'll have to check that, but I'm not sure.
The space we will put up will just say that it is something we are looking at or something that you can apply for, but you can't apply for military sexual trauma. It's not a condition. The condition they get is a mental health condition or a physical injury. There are a lot of different injuries. From working with the chair of It's Just 700, we have been educated quite a lot on what some of the psychologists and psychiatrists out there are actually diagnosing, which we did not know. We're actually working closely with them to address some of this.
We can always do better. I think I'll start there. It doesn't matter that we're approving them in the mid- to high-80s, we can always do better.
Before we say no in adjudications, we do call the individual to ask if there's anything else they can provide us. Sometimes they have the documents and they didn't send them. They didn't think it was important, but as for the “no” letter, we know about the envelope syndrome, that receiving an envelope from the Government of Canada is for some people traumatic. It's not just an envelope from Veterans Affairs, but from income tax or anywhere else, so we are working and have worked closely with the ombudsman's office to try to simplify our letters.
I have to say that although they're better, I don't think we're there. We still have to do some work on that. As I said earlier, sometimes the right answer is no, because it's not related to service. We do have to comply with the act that we are given to administer. There are some traumatic stories out there, and I see them, but the reality is that if it was not caused by your military service.... The veterans affairs act says it's supposed to....
We've changed in the last three years, giving the benefit of the doubt to the veteran now. We've changed that. When I arrived a little bit more than three years ago, you had to prove it was caused by service. You had to give us your CF 98 that said you had been injured. We've now moved on that. Do we always get it right? No, but I think we've gone a long way, so that now, if you're in certain trades, if your knees are gone and you're an infantry person and you've served 25 years and you come to us, it would be a yes. You may not have blown your knee in one jump, but over 25 years of humping who knows how many miles, the joints are gone.
We're working on that, but there are still some “no” letters that go out, and they're traumatic for the individuals.
Thank you. That ends this round of questioning. I would like to thank you for appearing today and for all the great things you do for our men and women.
With that, I'm going to have to have some votes on the estimates. We're just going to keep going, as we're short on time.
First we'll vote on the supplementary estimates (C), 2016-17:
Vote 1c—Operating expenditures..........$65,448,828
Vote 5c—Grants and contributions..........$69,400,000
(Votes 1c and 5c agreed to)
The Chair: Shall the chair report votes 1c and 5c under Veterans Affairs of supplementary estimates (C), 2016-17 to the House?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: Now we'll vote on the main estimates, 2017-18.
Vote 1—Operating expenditures..........$931,958,962
Vote 5—Grants and contributions..........$3,728,239,000
(Votes 1 and 5 agreed to)
VETERANS REVIEW AND APPEAL BOARD
Vote 1—Program expenditures..........$9,449,156
(Vote 1 agreed to)
The Chair: Shall the chair report votes 1 and 5 under Veterans Affairs and vote 1 under Veterans Review and Appeal Board of the main estimates, 2017-18 to the House?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair:Thank you.
I have a motion to adjourn from Mr. Bratina. All in favour?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair:Thank you very much. The meeting is adjourned.