Good morning, everybody. I'd like to call the meeting to order.
Pursuant to Standing Order 81(5), the committee commences consideration of the supplementary estimates (B), 2017-18, votes 1b and 5b under the Department of Veterans Affairs, referred to the committee on Tuesday, October 26, 2017.
I'd like to welcome the honourable Minister of Veterans Affairs and Walter Natynczyk, deputy minister of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
We'll start with a 10-minute round of testimony and then we'll get into questions.
Welcome, Minister. Thanks for coming today.
Mr. Chairman, fellow members of Parliament, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for the first time. I appreciate the good work that members do on behalf of Canadian veterans and their families. I want to thank you for the hard work that went into your most recent reports, “Reaching out: Improving Service Delivery to Canadian Veterans” and “Mental Health of Canadian Veterans: a Family Purpose”. The former already precipitated a great deal of change since it was tabled a year ago and the latter is very near to my heart as a long-term advocate for mental health awareness.
We have been taking action on your recommendations to ensure the programs that we deliver are efficient, valued, and meet the needs of our veterans. As I'm sure you're aware, our own internal report, “Delivering Service Excellence”, released earlier this year, complemented many of the recommendations that you made. We are committed to improving our current system. We have a plan in place to address the recommendations. We are hard at work implementing them. We are overhauling how we deliver services. While it will take five years to successfully complete the transition, 90% of the recommendations will be completed within three years. A few of the things that will take longer rely on other government departments or policy changes that are outside our authority.
Those changes are key improvements to the many systems, services, support measures, benefits and programs that veterans need to successfully transition to civilian life. I am proud to take office during this pivotal time in order to help implement them.
I talk many times about my own connection to the Canadian Armed Forces: the fact that I grew up at CFB Goose Bay, and that my brother Danny is a lieutenant commander in the Royal Canadian Navy. Actually, growing up at CFB Goose Bay—I don't know if I've ever told you, Mr. Chair—I was taught at a very early age that Trenton was nirvana. All the CAF forces at CFB Goose Bay couldn't wait to get back to Trenton. I said, “Someday I have to visit it.”
In discussions with my brother, he made me aware of some of the challenges even before I came into this role. It was quite fitting and an honour and a privilege to be named Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Associate Minister of National Defence, and to work alongside members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, veterans, and their families. This has given me the opportunity to take on these essential tasks of improving service delivery, closing the seam between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada, and ensuring financial security for the most seriously ill and injured veterans.
We are here today to talk about what my department is doing, how the supplementary estimates reflect our approach to veterans' well-being, our accomplishments, and the work that remains to be done. Specifically, Veterans Affairs will receive an additional $26.1 million in these supplementary estimates, a 0.6% increase to $4.7 billion.
Before I speak to where we increased our estimates for new programs, it's important to point out that 90% of that budget figure represents payments directly to veterans and their families. For many veterans, this means the pain and suffering disability award in recognition of her or his injury. More than that, though, it goes to the earnings loss benefit of 90% of their pre-release salary, paid out during vocational rehabilitation. It also goes to the vocational rehabilitation that works with the veteran through the injury, which might be a barrier to finding her or his new normal.
If that veteran cannot re-establish after rehabilitation, it provides through the extended earnings loss benefit of 90% of pre-release salary paid out until the age of 65. It also goes to the career impact allowance if the veteran has a severe and permanent impairment, and to the career impact allowance supplement if that impairment results in a diminished earning capacity.
When a veteran turns 65, it goes to the retirement income security benefit or the supplementary retirement benefit.
Ultimately, all veterans who come to one of our many area offices can now be assured that most of our funding is used to recognize their pain and suffering and to set up and maintain wellness programs that provide a safety net during their recovery.
Let me say this again because it's an important point. Ultimately, for any veteran who comes to the door of one of our many area offices today, they can rest assured that the majority of our funding is going towards recognizing their pain and suffering, and establishing and maintaining the well-being programs that provide a safety net while they are mending.
But we still have work to do. We are enhancing the financial security and wellness elements of the new Veterans Charter to help veterans and their families transition to civilian life and make choices about what they want to do next, whether it be work, education, or other activities.
These supplementary estimates (B) primarily include funding for several budget 2017 initiatives. This funding and our overall guiding focus is about improving the lives of Canadian veterans, whether it be through enhanced education and employment services, the new caregiver recognition benefit that will provide $1,000 a month tax-free to the informal caregiver, or other critical programs we introduced in budget 2017, which will be implemented on April 1, 2018.
Of course, some of the funding went to the Invictus Games Toronto 2017, where veterans and active military members alike embraced the power of sport as they pushed through barriers and proudly represented our country. While it was an incredible event for the millions of spectators, I know there are many veterans who need more support from us, and that's why we're here today.
We are on the right track to improving our support for veterans. For example, of the 67,000 individuals who received the disability award increase reflected in these estimates, which put approximately $700 million in the pockets of our veterans, around 37,000 received their amended payment immediately, as a result of our move towards a fully automated system.
Having already done so much in reinforcing the benefits that make up our wellness model and bolstering the successes of the new Veterans Charter, we will announce more details on our monthly pension option for veterans shortly. We know this is an eagerly awaited announcement. We are committed to giving veterans and their families the best options to ensure their financial security and getting them the best possible support in their post-military lives.
We are all here to serve Canada's veterans. At the end of the day, those who need our assistance now or in the future need to know that we are here to assist them, and that we will continue to expand and adapt to the needs of our growing and diverse veterans community, especially with the help of this committee.
Thank you for your time.
By the end of the year.
I don't think I'm disclosing too much to say we literally just came from another meeting on exactly this issue. This is a commitment we've made to veterans. This is a commitment we've made to Canadians.
I'm not going to make excuses by saying I'm a new minister but obviously, I came in as a fresh set of eyes and the learning curve was extremely steep. There were things I wanted to do as well on this.
I will take advantage of this opportunity in public to commend our officials who have been working, as you would expect, weekends and late into the night, because we want to have that option ready.
You are absolutely right, sir, that December is fast approaching. I've just recommitted here again in front of this committee that it will be by the end of this year.
Thank you very much for being here today.
I'll just reiterate that it's really important to all of us around this table that we meet the needs of our veterans.
It has been a real privilege for me to be able to serve in this role. I have no military background whatsoever, so I come at this as your typical Canadian. Having travelled this summer and having had many conversations with our veterans, there's no question that there are a lot of issues. A lot of them relate more to frustration in understanding what's coming their way and receiving it in a timely and kind manner.
Minister, on the whole issue around the pension, I'm sure you hear it over and over again, that a promise was made to Equitas that it would not be taken back to court, and that has happened. There's a lot of concern there as well on what that promise was versus what might actually be announced.
I know there's a lot of concern about that pension being not just an option, but the number one go-to, with other things being the option. Can you re-emphasize to me what you mean when you say the “option” of a lifetime pension?
I can't remember how many weeks it was into my tenure that we dived right into suicide prevention. Within academic and international circles, this is seen as a pivotal study, with such pivotal purpose. Not to be glib, I've been fighting for mental health issues since before I knew I was suffering from some of them. It's a deeply personal issue to me.
I am extremely proud of the efforts that have been made by the people of this department to attempt to effectively address the mental health needs of our veterans. On the day I was sworn in, the general here commandeered me and threw me into the back of a car and immediately started briefing me on the work of the department. One of the first things he said to me was that the culture is changing and we had to reinforce that change and that we give our veterans the benefit of the doubt. That is a very fundamental principle: when they call, we give them the benefit of the doubt. Veterans did not always feel that. It does take courage. When they've worked up the courage to acknowledge that they were suffering and sought help, they did not always feel that there was a sympathetic ear on the other end of the line. I think that's fair to say.
I think there's been a demonstrable change. We've heard that from many veterans. It is not perfect. Mental illness is sometimes a very elusive target for the person who's suffering from it in attempting to describe their illness, and to the people who are attempting to address it. Again, the principle of benefit of the doubt comes into play time and again.
I think we acknowledge and seek to help 94% of the people who call and say they're suffering from PTSD. If they can prove they were in a special duty area, that it was in service, then we put them in the program.
Is that fair to say, Walt?
Just to say that with budget 2017, as the minister indicated before, the focus is on the well-being of the veteran.
What is really unique about the education and training benefit is that for the first time since World War II, we have a benefit that is available to all veterans leaving the Canadian Armed Forces who have served at least six years and 12 years—these two gates—to re-establish them and assist them in re-establishing into Canadian society. In the U.S. they would call this the GI bill.
It's the first time since World War II that we have this kind of flexibility to provide education and training for veterans, many of whom kind of joined the military because they didn't like school. Later in their life they don't have the skills, especially if they had been in, say, the infantry, the armoured artillery, and some of the other trades, that are easily transferable into civil society. What's terrific about the education and training benefit is if someone reaches six years of service—because we want them to fulfill their obligation to the country—they could have access to $40,000 for education, books, tuition, and living expenses. If someone has served 12 years of service, they could get up to $80,000 for four years of education, college, university, trade school, again, for tuition, books, and living expenses. If they wanted to do something of a hobby nature, you know, entrepreneurship or those kinds of things, they could get up to $5,000. This is extraordinary, to be able to have a package like this that we can link on to the other part in the budget, which is career transition. It takes these individuals with new skills and then lands them into a purpose, a meaningful purpose, that may also give them financial security in the long run.
Thank you. I get to use my time now.
I have a number of things I want to mention, because from what I've heard from veterans, it's important for you to know. You may know it already, however.
In regard to the lifelong pensions, I'm aware that the candidate in Surrey has served significantly in the realm of Equitas doing fundraising and whatnot, and this issue is very important to him. Our veterans have made an ask here for lifelong pensions, tax-free, subject to legislation to change any rates, and no clawback on their military pensions. I just want to put that on the table today to make it very clear that this is what I certainly hope is going to happen in response to the promise that this government made.
You talked about transitioning into the military and being moved into a hierarchy. When someone comes out of the military, that falls to the wayside to some degree. I don't see that happening in transition. With the earnings loss benefit and the increase to 90%, there was also a change in demotions, shall we say, to the lower people. They are not receiving the same level of increase that higher-ranked people are.
When it comes to the education opportunities, I applaud that after six years and after 12 years, there's this opportunity, regardless of whether you're injured. However, if you are in the military, your boots are on the ground, and you're somewhere between 18 and 20 to 25, chances are you're the one who's going to be injured. A lot of that tends to happen early on in service. Those individuals will not have that opportunity, and they're injured. If you're injured between one to five years of service, you only get the two-year SISIP. The requirements there are not reasonable to someone who has been harmed. That is something that is very concerning to me.
Minister, you said in the House that if you need help, all you need to do is raise your hand. I don't know if you're following me on Facebook, but that really stuck in the craw of people who said, “I've raised my hand.”
You also spoke just now of the benefit of the doubt. We did a major study on mental health care. Mefloquine is an issue in this country for our soldiers. I'm thankful that they've finally relegated it to a drug of last resort, coming into line more with the rest of the world, our allies, on this, but that in itself is not enough. That's like having a car with a recall because of something that is causing death, and you just say, “Well we've fixed it for the future. We're not going to deal with what's happened in the past.”
These veterans gave a lot of testimony at this committee. On the mental health report, none of it was really included because it was considered anecdotal. If you're listening to our veterans.... I cannot comprehend how that could be an argument for not hearing what they had to say, unless we want to just have a whole bunch of people take mefloquine and do a study, which obviously is not the way to go.
We've had so many suicide intervention strategies. The reality is that suicides are happening all over. We need to know the numbers, and we need to know the whys. This is going to happen, even if the government doesn't do it itself. If you want some help with that, I have lots of information in my office. It's time, I think, that we came face to face with the realities of what has happened and recognize that to a far greater level. That in itself would make a difference to these individuals who end up suffering, like Lionel Desmond, who took the lives of his family along with his own, which is not unusual. The mentality is, “I don't want them to suffer because of me.”
Those are issues that are very important.
The Invictus Games were phenomenal. The symposium was amazing. I attended the whole thing. I had an opportunity there to speak with the Minister of Veterans' Affairs from Australia, Mr. Tehan. He talked a little bit about your conversation and wanting to get together more in research. I hope that happens with mefloquine.
That's my rant. There are many ways that I think, when we look at how we're taking care of our veterans when they come and they're injured, that hierarchy cannot be part of the equation. If they need education, then they need education. It shouldn't be only at six years or only at 12 years. If they're injured—and it's not a huge number—we should be doing everything we can for them, and the rest, I believe, will fall into place.
Thank you, Minister, and thank you, General Natynczyk, for coming.
This has been a very important committee for me. I requested to be on this committee from day one. Air force base 17 Wing is in my riding, and there are some very worthwhile veterans groups, ANAVETS and Charleswood Legion 100. I was very honoured to be selected last month for the commemorative trip for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. That was a very moving experience. This has been, as I said, a very important file for me from day one.
One thing that impacted the people of my province is Shilo air force base, two hours west of me and nearby the veterans service centre in Brandon, Manitoba. It was one of the nine that were previously closed, and I was getting a lot of feedback about how difficult that was making things for a lot of people now having to drive through two hours of bald-headed prairie to get their services in Winnipeg. I was honoured to be at the opening of the one in Brandon.
Can you give us an update on the status of the renewed services now that we've reopened these? Is it all nine of them that we've reopened?
I'm going to have you speak to the specifics of that, but before I do, I want to get back to Phil, to your point about the “spaghetti page”, because I think it's really important.
I'll be honest. I'm not sure if that's an entirely fair depiction of what every single veteran has to go through, because there are a number of options that are portrayed there. I will tell you I believe impatience is a virtue. I am impatient about streamlining as much of this as we possibly can.
I know, frankly, from the deputy's commitment, which he has reiterated to me again, that it is vitally important that we maintain a veterans' point of view on how we deliver services. It is vitally important that everything new that we roll out.... I call them “sherpas”. There are a number of different words that we can use for them, but the onus is on us to navigate those waters. The onus is not on the veteran to navigate them; the onus is on us to achieve results in as short an order and amount of time as we possibly can so that they never have to see that page or feel it, more importantly.
That's my commitment to this committee and that's my commitment to veterans.
I'll let you speak to Doug's—
The minister just provided testimony today, which indicates that we can expect an announcement on the lifetime pension issue before the end of the year. This is the centre of the Equitas case, as you know. On many occasions, since I've been in this role, which is a short period of time, I've had contact with many of the principal people involved with the Equitas case.
As you know, the government decided to re-engage in the court case, after the abeyance agreement ran out. The appeal court still hasn't rendered a decision on where that would be. The Equitas people were in Ottawa prior to Remembrance Day articulating pretty clearly what the lifetime pension conditions are or the parts of the program that they thought it should be.
The reason I bring that up is that, when we look at the supplementary estimates (B), there are no appropriations for lifetime pensions.
When we anticipate an announcement that the minister has promised by the end of the year, how do we square that with no appropriations for lifetime pensions?
In your roles, can you explain how that squares?
Mr. Chair, perhaps I can speak to that.
At the end of the day, just to reiterate what the minister said, he has been working on this as an issue. He has yet to take it to cabinet. Once it goes to cabinet, it will be cabinet that basically determines how the government will respond to it. It then, as you know, goes through a legislative process. The House of Commons will have to look at it.
Within that, depending on what it is, that will determine how long it might take to implement it, and that would then be part of the legislative program. Parliamentarians would weigh in on that and it would have an implementation date, all linked to the nature of it, the complexity of it, and so on. That, right at the moment, would be an unknown. Clarity will come once the cabinet deals with it and it's put before the House in whatever form it might take.
Thank you for the question. I hope I do as well with this answer as I did with the last one.
As the honourable member mentioned earlier, we have challenges. I'm not going to hide it and I didn't the last time. When it comes to production and our numbers, we have challenges with the numbers going up. However, the programming and the surveys we have done in relation to the programming have demonstrated that we're trending in the right direction.
Our survey of 1,500 randomly chosen veterans of different categories—traditional veterans, CAF veterans, and RCMP veterans—has demonstrated that our staff is respectful. We are trying to meet their needs. We're helping them advance and get what they need.
Can we do better? We can always do better. We know there are areas such as in mental health in certain parts of the country where it is a challenge, so we're working on all those areas. However, this has provided us with some insight we did not have before. It's okay to ask ourselves what it looks like. I know that people here talk to veterans, and I talk to a lot of veterans, but to actually go out and randomly just ask people what they think and come back, it gives us this insight and helps us concentrate on where to look.
In addition, when we did the service delivery review, which we're now calling “service excellence” because the review is finished and we're trying to implement some of the stuff, it demonstrated that we're still too bureaucratic. We have to improve our documentation.
Communication was raised with the minister earlier. How do we improve that communication with veterans so that they understand? How do we go to a push system and not a pull system, meaning that Veterans Affairs does the heavy lifting and not the veteran, and do the chart and all those things? How do we simplify that so veterans know what they're entitled to and they can actually get it? Those are all things we are working on.
We still have a lot of work to do on simplification. However, at least when we did the survey, which was anonymous so they could say what they wanted and there would be no repercussions, the veterans who were surveyed were pleased with the services. They were pleased that it was providing them with a level of financial security to help them deal with the day-to-day things.
There are still some irritants, some areas we have to work on, some work to be done on rehab. Some of them are still not quite happy with the rehab, and there is some work to do on the case management side, but all in all, we're trending in a different way. I'm not sitting back and saying everything is nice and rosy, because I still get, on a daily basis, complaints from veterans, so how can we improve that?
Absolutely. It's a multitude. I guess sometimes you're the victim of your own success.
Improved communications, the reality where we're giving more benefit of the doubt to the veterans, and a host of new programming have made it so that we've gone from approximately 36,000 applications a couple of years ago to finishing around 53,000 last year. We're probably going to have close to 60,000 applications this year, which means people are coming forward looking for help, and we're giving them help. We've increased our production by 22%, and I'm not even talking about the other gateways, such as rehab. This is really on the disability and financial side.
The reality is even though you're improving production by 22%, when your incoming increases by close to 30%—or 27%, 28%—you're sliding backwards, and that's where this backlog is coming from. An increase in communications, such as through My VAC Account, has helped us a lot. An increase in benefits that are easier to understand than some previous more complex ones has made it so that people are coming forward for help.
We don't have clear studies on it. Let's be clear. This is what the career transition service—the new program that's coming in that the deputy talked about earlier—is going to be working on. It will not only give us the data, but also work with employers to make sure there is no such stigma.
The military people are good employees. Yes, some of them may have mental health issues. Some of them may not be ready to work, but a lot of them are good employees, ready to work, very devoted, and very dedicated to their employer, whether it's the Government of Canada or a new employer.
With the new CTS program, the hours of counselling and the job placement are actually to make sure that is there. There's also a follow-up component to make sure there's no misunderstanding. What we are noticing—I don't have stats on this, so it's more anecdotal—is that it's a difference in communication. It's the translation of the terminology. A military person speaks in a certain way—those who've served in the military know exactly what I mean—and is used to certain ways. In the private sector and the public sector, it's a different lingo and a different way of doing business. There's an adaptation that is needed, and we have to make sure we help the member and the veteran adapt to that new environment.
Thank you, Vice-Chair. I will commence by addressing your first point, the caregiver benefit. As with most of the new initiatives announced in budget 2017, these supplementary estimates really cover what I would describe as preparation and implementation costs that the department needs to undertake in order for the benefit to be in a position to come into force on April 1.
For example, there's $450,000 that we've costed for information technology development costs. There's another $40,000 in salary for service delivery, work that has to take place, and various operating costs, including a threat and risk assessment, office accommodations, and information technology fit-up costs. When these are announced, there are system developments, system design, and user testing, and we ensure that on the coming-into-force date, the implementation of the new benefit will be smooth, accurate, and timely.
Perhaps while my colleague is just looking up the appointed question on the supplementary estimates, what I might like to do, Mr. Chair, is just give you a bit of a sense of what we're doing from a departmental point of view on the homelessness strategy.
You've identified the housing strategy that's recently been announced. Veterans Affairs works with CMHC to ensure that veterans were identified as a vulnerable group in that mix. We'll work with CMHC in terms of the funding that's been allocated by government over the next 10 years to address that. Veterans Affairs is also working very closely with ESDC on a homelessness partnering strategy where, again, veterans are recognized as a vulnerable group, a priority group. We will work ESDC and our other partners on that. In terms of our basic approach to homelessness, we have essentially a four-point plan. We have a lot of ongoing activity and it basically falls under four points.
One is to leave and leverage. We see Veterans Affairs as having a leading role to play in coordinating a lot of the work that's being done across Canada at all levels of government and also with non-profit organizations. We see ourselves as working with them to help, as I say, coordinate and leverage existing resources out there.
We're very concerned about finding veterans who are homeless and, again, working with colleagues and organizations out there doing that. Once they're found, it's about assisting those veterans, through all of the programming at our district levels, to get them off the street and provide all of the range of supports from rehabilitation and onward.
The fourth prong of our strategy is about prevention. It's to work with our colleagues, all of these groups, and with veterans in the transition process in particular to position them so that their needs are identified before they leave the military. Through our rehabilitation programs, our career transition programs, our education programs, the new veteran emergency fund that's been identified for budget 2017, and so on, we try to ensure that we help prevent homelessness in the veteran population.
Thank you for the question, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Samson, it's always a pleasure.
We have invested a lot of time and money in, I don't know if the term is “upgrading”, but investing and improving the knowledge of our case managers, and I would go further, all of our employees.
The reality is with the influx of money we've received in the last couple of years, we've hired over 460 new employees. These are new positions, new employees, plus an attrition rate of probably between 10% and 15%, so we're probably close to 600 new people joining the department, but there are 460 new positions. We decided to really bring them into this care, compassion, respect environment, so we developed a national training program for our new people where we teach them—I don't know if that's the right term; I don't want to sound degrading in any way—we educate them on our new programs and bring them into this care, compassion, respect environment of giving the benefit of the doubt to the veteran.
They are professionals. They are case managers. They are social workers, nurses. They have the education, but what's important is whether they understand the military culture and our programs. We've been investing a lot, so much so that our more experienced case managers have come back to us and said, “Wait a minute. This is all nice and dandy that you are doing that with the new guys, but what about us? We need this recycling.” So we've embarked since April 2017 on recycling. It's not the same length of training, but it's recycling the people.
When veterans say the case managers don't know about the new programs, I'm always a little concerned because they should.
Once again, let me first stress that Veterans Affairs Canada does not provide medical care. I understand the situation in Nova Scotia, but the fact remains that it is the responsibility of the provinces to administer medical care and to give veterans what we call scripts, not marijuana prescriptions. In fact, we are not talking about prescriptions for marijuana, since it is not a recognized drug that can be prescribed in the same way as other drugs. For doctors to be able to prescribe it, they must be assigned a certain number.
I think it's called a DIN, but I stand to be corrected by the doctors; I know there are some in the room.
You are talking about some veterans in your riding. However, I cannot talk about specific cases, because the information is confidential.