Chairman Ellis and fellow members of Parliament, good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs today. I am always glad to meet with you because I know that we share the same goal, supporting the veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families.
Our shared mandate it to ensure that Canada lives up to its duty to provide the care, support, respect, and economic opportunities that veterans deserve for their services to the country.
Before continuing, I would also like thank the committee for its dedication to ensuring that we keep that promise.
When I first appeared before the committee this fall, I was a newly appointed minister, and a lot has changed since then, including December's announcement of the pension for life. It will become another integral part of the package we provide for the well-being of our veterans. The pension for life provides three new benefits.
The pain and suffering compensation recognizes and compensates veterans for the pain and suffering they experience as a result of service-related disability. Additional pain and suffering compensation will be provided for those with severe and permanent service-related impairments causing a barrier to re-establishment in life after service. Veterans will be able to choose to receive those as tax-free monthly payments for life or as a single, non-taxable lump sum, whichever is right for them and their family.
The second component of the pension for life is the income replacement benefit that will provide up to 90% of the veteran's salary at the time of their release from the Canadian Armed Forces. This is for veterans who face barriers to re-establishment caused by health problems resulting primarily from service.
These components will be combined with the wellness benefit included in the New Veterans Charter in order to provide better support to ill and injured veterans as they begin their life after military service.
These components will build on our government's investments in budget 2016 where we increased the amount of the disability award; and as of December, veterans received $650 million. You can see that increase reflected throughout Veterans Affairs vote 5 in the 2017-2018 main estimates and throughout this year's supplementary estimates for the department.
We also increased the earnings loss benefit, which veterans receive while in rehabilitation, to 90% of their pre-release salary. We re-opened the nine offices closed by the previous government and opened a new office in Surrey, as well as expanding outreach to veterans in northern Canada, and we hired more staff.
Going live in two weeks are our budget 2017 initiatives, including the education and training benefit; career transition services; veteran emergency fund; caregiver recognition benefit; the expansion of our successful military family resource centre pilot; the veteran and family well-being fund; the centre of excellence on PTSD and mental health; and the elimination of a time limit on the rehabilitation services and vocational assistance program. I look forward to reporting back throughout the year on the progress in each of these.
The key to these benefits and programs is how we deliver them. Since December, I've had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of veterans, their families, and serving CAF members at town hall meetings. I can tell you how we deliver services and, in many cases, how services are not being delivered comes up loudly, and it comes up often, and for good reason.
When I was here last, I spoke about this committee's reports, “Reaching Out: Improving Service Delivery to Canadian Veterans” and “Mental Health of Canadian Veterans: A Family Purpose”. Many of your recommendations corresponded with what Veterans Affairs own service delivery review identified as key areas of need.
I also said that the department has an action plan to address those recommendations. Among the 91 specific measures to improve veterans' experience, the department has already responded to nearly half of them and I am committed to continuing to implement them by the end of 2020-21.
To accomplish this, we've made a number of fundamental changes to the way that Veterans Affairs works. The most significant one is completely turning around the approach to delivering services. Previously, it was up to the veteran to apply for benefits and services. Our service delivery review report called this the “pull” model. The problem with it was that veterans often did not have enough information to be able to ask the questions that would enable them to apply for benefits. Again, this is something that has come up over and over again with the veterans that I meet.
Therefore, we've flipped that to a push model. Now, Veterans Affairs staff take the initiative to give veterans all the information they need about the services they're eligible for. Let me take a moment to tell you a little more about that.
This month, the department is wrapping up a six-month pilot called guided support. The program assigned a veteran service agent to be the main point of contact at the department for a veteran. The agent gets to know the veteran, their family situation, and their needs and then determines what programs, benefits, and services they're eligible for. The agent helps the veteran navigate through the department's application and delivery system, and coordinates services.
The reactions of participants in the pilot study have been very encouraging. Veterans and families liked the fact that they only had to communicate with one person at the department. They appreciated the support they received in learning about services and benefits and in filling out the right forms to apply for them.
Veterans service agents were also enthusiastic. They like being able to visit veterans at home, getting to know them better, and developing a plan that is tailored to their individual needs. We are about to implement this level of support for all veterans who do not need a case manager, but need more than just a phone call.
However, it's important to realize that the fundamental changes the department has made to the benefits and services, and to the way it delivers them, are having an impact right now on the lives of veterans and their families today.
It's not only through the pilot project that veterans are getting more and better information about the services and benefits they're entitled to; the whole department is adopting the push model. It has made significant progress in improving communications to veterans, families, advocates, and stakeholders, whether in person, by phone, over the Internet, or even by mail.
As a result of these efforts, the number of applications for disability benefits has increased 32% over the past two years. We will ensure that every veteran who comes forward receives what they're entitled to, whether that's 10 veterans or 10,000.
I am here today in regard to supplementary estimates (C). As you can see, Veterans Affairs Canada is seeking $45 million in increased operating expenditures and $132 million in grants and contributions.
Our programs are driven by demand, which is why the bulk of these supplementary estimates will pay for benefits and programs that go directly to veterans, their families, and caregivers. They also include increases to disability awards and allowances, a doubling of the critical injury benefit, money for educational assistance for children of deceased members or veterans, payments for housekeeping and grounds maintenance for veterans, and funding for treatment benefits and operational stress injury clinics.
Chairman Ellis and members of the standing committee, we share a common goal to ensure that Canada's veterans get the support and services they need. Veterans Affairs Canada is working hard to enhance the well-being of veterans and their families.
With further improvements planned for the coming fiscal year and the reinstatement of a pension for life option in 2019, we are making real strides. With the support of this committee, we can continue making progress.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Minister and Deputy Minister, for being here.
As we know, the new pension for life option, which is part of the planned spending in the 2018-2019 budget, could cost as much as $3.6 billion. This is a significant sum of money, but I think it's quite a bit less than what was promised to veterans by the party that is now in power, your party.
The 2015 Liberal Party platform said, “We will re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for our injured veterans”. So your party's document refers to the old lifelong pension that existed before the implementation of the new Veterans Charter. That is why the word “re-establish” was used, and not “instate” or “create”. The word was to “re-establish” it as it was before. It was clear and unequivocal language.
In a town hall meeting in Edmonton on February 1, the admitted that your government was still fighting veterans who are seeking the reinstatement of the lifelong pension, in court, “Because they're asking for more than we are able to give right now”.
My question is specifically about direct payments made to veterans—no other services or programs, just the direct monthly payments to veterans. If the old lifelong pension regime was actually reinstated, as the Liberal Party promised it would do, as you and your leader promised to do in the election, Minister, then how much more would it have cost compared to the watered-down lifetime pension program that you're delivering now?
It was the direct order from the Prime Minister on the day he told me he'd be swearing me in the next day: to close the seam. Interestingly, it was something that my brother, who's a lieutenant commander in the navy and was acting commandant of the naval fleet school in CFB Esquimalt, had said to me months earlier. He said we had to do something, without either one of us knowing that I'd be here, because suddenly he was involved in a lot of human resource issues and it became evident that people were coming out and they were lost. Emmanuella was referring earlier to the transition being very difficult, and you've heard this from veterans. When you're in a very structured environment for a long period of time—20 to 25 years, let's say—and you know exactly how your day is going to go and where your benefits come from and everything, and suddenly you're thrust out into the world, and you don't know, and you have to reapply for everything, and you have to go see a new doctor, it just doesn't make any sense.
We call it convergence, as you all know, and that's what we're working on.
I would say right now that the Minister of National Defence and I meet about once every week or two on things that we can do to start putting that process into place. I was almost singularly looking at pension for life up until Christmas. Now it's the communicating of the pension for life, and bringing it before the House. But it's also convergence right now and backlog. Those are my biggest priorities.
With convergence, what we would like to have happen is that service men and women would never know they're moving from one department to another. They would simply be aware of the services and programs they're entitled to and that perhaps they're moving over to other services and programs.
This does involve some issues with privacy. These were set up with the best of intentions. People shouldn't be able to throw around your medical records, which makes all sorts of sense. So you have a whole series of legislation and regulations to ensure that people's privacy, when it comes to their medical records, is held carefully. However, in this instance it doesn't work, because we want to make sure it is seamless. So we are working with Treasury Board as well to make sure those systems are put in place.
We all sign onto Google's terms and conditions—maybe that's not the best example these days—and say, “You have permission to use my information.” In a much more controlled and secure manner within government, perhaps we can find something similar, where perhaps early on in your military career you can agree that you are willing to share your military records post-service with Veterans Affairs Canada.
Thank you for being here today.
My questions will revolve around your conversation on closing the seam.
I had five different conversations with veterans, and I'm beginning to find where they are in Saskatchewan because they are trying to connect with me. One particular individual, who is not in Saskatchewan right now, is posted into JPSU waiting for medical release. He was told he can't be released, won't be released, until everything is in place and that his contract would not be up until 2020.
His wing surgeon sent confirmation to Ottawa that he was approved for service-related medical release. The report included testimony from the base doctor, the base psychiatrist, his case manager, and his civilian doctor. The response back from VAC, which his doctor could not believe, was that more proof was required. We're trying to close this seam and who knows better whether that person who's being medically released from service is released due to service injuries—DND or VAC?
I had this conversation on February 15 with Ms. Elizabeth Douglas, because the ombudsman had indicated that they recommended that at the initial release from service, DND clarify whether or not the release was due to service or not. Her response to my request to have her perspective was that VAC believed this is a VAC function. I went on to ask if it would not streamline the process—which is what we're trying desperately to do here for these guys and gals—if it were at least deemed when they left the armed forces that their injury was or was not due to service. She continued to say that she felt it was their responsibility.
I'm going to quote one more statement. I asked who would know better when it comes to serving in the armed forces whether that injury causing release was due to their service? Would it be VAC or DND? Right now, in her report, she has said the integration of VAC staff with the IPSCs has given VAC the opportunity to better understand military culture. I find it very disturbing that we have to find ways for VAC to better understand military culture to deal with an issue that could be taken care of long ahead of their leaving, and then taking months for it do so. What's slowing them down in getting their VAC services is not ignorance of what they qualify for, but the amount of time it takes for their release to be identified as being a result a service-related injury.
Is that not something, Minister, that you could do immediately and say, from now on when they're being released VAC will know, as the releasing service member comes over, that this is a service-related injury? Yes or no?
Minister and General, it's good to see you again. Thank you for coming.
We're discussing interim estimates today. Like it is for a business, these are yearly projections that are based on costs and on our expectations for the next year. That said, the government has just announced that it is going to commit our soldiers to Mali. I recognize that most of the budgetary aspect of this...and I assume prudent analysis was done on this mission. I also recognize that the budgetary funding should have been—I'm assuming it will be—discussed with the National Defence estimates.
However, these soldiers—airmen, airwomen—will be our future veterans. Therefore, there should have been some planning, costing, and proactive analysis done for the increased expenses that will occur. These increases could be in health care costs, transition costs, and disability costs, and God forbid someone comes home with a death.... There are family costs and analysis all factored into this part. We are dealing with the issues of PTSD that we have learned about, and I suspect there will be concerns about anti-malarial medication issues.
We know that the UN basically pays for the personnel while they're there, but it does not pay for the transition for our veterans. These things will happen immediately. They could transpire from the moment it happens, and we could have numbers coming back the very next day. Those numbers should be factored in.
Minister, I also know—we all know—that you are an assistant deputy minister. You have also indicated to us today that you talk to the weekly, so you should have been at the table. I assume you were. As you've told us many times, you have committed to our veterans, so you would have brought up these issues at that table. The Liberals brought us into Afghanistan, and now they're taking us into Mali. I'm hoping that we learn something from that aspect of it. Where in these figures are they factored into what the numbers are, and how much are those costs? Can you tell us that information in these yearly costs, please?
, in the campaign—and this has to do with the meeting today—there was a promise that the government was going to go to 25:1, caseworker to clients. That was a promise that was made. It was sold to veterans, to employees. It was mentioned several times last year in the budget, but it's not mentioned once this year.
I'm wondering if you have decided to abandon that pledge. Right now it's my understanding that we're around 38:1 or 39:1. We're very grateful that you're reopened offices, but in some cases we're hearing it's 60:1 or 65:1.
I mean, when you have this amount, and I'm back to this $42.8 million.... Again, it's our understanding that you needed double that to get to this place where we need to get to. I don't understand why we're not hiring back the staff that we need from 2012.
Can you maybe explain if you have abandoned that promise?
I don't know, Mr. Eyolfson, if it's something that could be tested in a court of law. It's a simple question around a promise. Can you answer that, because that's important?
My understanding is that we are still working hard to achieve 25:1. We owe that to veterans. We owe that to our employees.
The and I were in Edmonton, and I had an opportunity to talk to our staff out there. We have some case managers who are in the upper thirties, and some who are in the lower twenties.
What is terrific is that we're able to get quality social workers, psychologists, and so on, who have case management experience. I met with a whole bunch of them, put them through a boot camp, and then slowly increased their caseload in order to take cases from those who have been around for a while. When we asked for additional folks a few years ago, we had an expectation of below about 10,000 folks who would be case managed. For a whole host of reasons, we're north of 12,000 case-managed veterans.
We're out there on an active basis trying to hire the right folks, put them through a boot camp, get into the offices, and then cross-level workloads, and this is ongoing. This is tough work. Case management in this kind of business—many of you have worked in communities—is tough work. Getting the right kind of people with the right kind of skills is absolutely essential, and then retaining them.
“Care, compassion, respect” is where we're going, and where we are in many places, notwithstanding some of the examples I heard earlier. I have to say, I was quite upset at that. I'll figure out who the veteran is and I'll figure out what happened there. That's my area.
I have been here four plus years, and there has been a fundamental change when it comes to how our staff deal with veterans. Now, it is not perfect. They are individuals working on the front line, and things happen, but there has been substantive change when it comes to care, compassion, respect, and actually getting to yes. How can we actually get the help that the veteran needs when the veteran needs that help?
There has been a lot of stuff done. Now, there are still pockets of areas, and they're not all in one branch or area. Some people have been doing the same job the same way for 25 or 30 years, and to try to get them to look at it from a different perspective is not always easy, but we've come a long way in the past four years, and many veterans actually tell me that. When I arrived at Veterans Affairs four years ago, I probably had a serious issue or two to contend with on a daily basis. Now I actually get thank-you notes from veterans, and I have to say that four years ago they were very rare.
We've done a lot of work on that, but there's still a lot of work to be done. The service excellence that was approved by Treasury Board—we used to call it service delivery review, but we've changed it to service excellence—is actually inculcating that care, compassion, and respect in our staff. I always challenge my colleague, Mr. Butler, that it's not just the service that has to be excellent and veteran-centric; it has to start from the policy and move into service so that we can deliver this. We're working very hard on doing that.
As an example, last year, we pushed out the disability award. You didn't have to apply for the increase in your disability award. We actually sent everybody an email through their My VAC Account, or by normal mail, to tell them the money would be in their bank account, and on the third day of the month—because the first and second happened to be a weekend—the money was deposited automatically.
Unfortunately, we had a lot of phone calls from people asking what the money was for, which killed my stats on the phones for a month, but the reality is the money was there. That's taking a different approach. Previously we would have required that they come to us and apply, we'd adjudicate it, and we'd get the money to them in a month. When we did the DA change, it was in their bank accounts.
We are working on it, but we still have a long way to go, because there are still some people who have to come along.
To be honest, I take it a little bit hard, because my job is to get it done right the first time. Unfortunately, we don't always get it right the first time.
I think what happens is that we miss the millions of transactions that actually go right. We actually do millions of transactions a year, whether for the veterans independence program, the DA, or case management. We do on occasion, but we rarely hear about those.
We always hear about those that go wrong, and some of them actually go wrong. It's a very unfortunate reality, one I don't like. To me, there's a person attached to every single one of these. That's why I take it seriously.
We have open lines of communication with most of your offices. Most of you send them to the minister's office—they actually land on my desk. I read every single one of them. I have a team that works on them. I probably get 20 to 30 a day. I'm going to raise it because somebody else is going to hit me with it shortly. Right now most of them are about the backlog. I won't hide that. But every once in a while, there's one in there that is more than that. We deal with them. We take them very seriously.
I had a call from somebody two Thursdays ago. This veteran, dying of cancer, had never come forward to us for anything. By Friday evening we had VIP.... We had full-time care for him, an OT assessment. Everything was done for him. And God rest the veteran's soul, he died on Saturday. You may say that's a lot of work maybe for.... You wonder why. Well, now the widow is entitled to some of our programming. That's how seriously we do take it. When this goes astray, we feel...and we try to rectify it.
Well, there are seven mandate letter items that are coming on board on April 1, 2018. The career transition services and the education benefit are ones we've talked a lot about here, where they're going to be online.
Let's just talk about CTS, where a veteran will be able to work with an adviser and get help getting employment somewhere. We're working on that. That's going to be very innovative in the way we're doing it, and it's going to link with education.
Beyond that, you've all heard about the seven things we're bringing in, but we're also doing a lot of work on the operational side. We're trying to remove as many barriers as possible on the adjudication side. It's still a complex program, but we're trying to facilitate that. We're trying to eliminate some of that.
We're working with our friends at CAF, our partners, on transition, on medical health records. How can we ensure we get the health records in a timely fashion? That's all stuff to improve the services to our veterans. Some stuff can be done quickly. Some stuff will not be done quickly. There are privacy issues with health records. We're now working through that, but there's a real openness with our colleagues at CAF now to actually do this electronically.
I mean, I could go on, but I know time is limited so I'll be quiet.
That would be great. Thank you.
In talking to this individual that I mentioned previously, I'm not comfortable giving out his name at this point in time. I hope we all understand that.
One of the things he also mentioned about the base he is on is that this last Christmas, there were six suicide attempts, and five of them succeeded. The struggle is with the backlog of people going for medical care, and they basically just get told to take extra sick days. One of them literally got handed from person to person and taken to where they needed to be, and that's the one who did not take their own life.
Again, I appreciate that we need to do more on the whole awareness of mental health and do better with that.
I also asked another question previously of Ms. Elizabeth Douglas in regard to a committee report in 2015 on continuum of transition services. It was made clear that it can be very difficult to reach reservists after their services come to an end. In 2016, in response to a question our colleague Ms. Romanado posed, this answer was stated by a co-witness, Ms. Pellerin:
The group we're not so successful within terms of reach as the non-medically-releasing reservist group. As part of the seamless transition task force work that's getting under way, this is one group we'll be focusing on in terms of how we can better reach and serve them to make sure they're successful in their transition.
That was at the beginning of June 2016. I assume this study is done. Approximately 5,000 reservists leave each year, and I had asked how many were being contacted per year through this transition. She was going to get back to me with that, and I haven't heard that as well.
Is that information available?
Mr. Chair, I'll respond to that question.
I think that there may be some confusion over that. It's really interesting because there was quite a controversy here over this in the last year or two, when a veteran came forward and said, “They're asking me every year, did I lose my legs?” First, that wasn't actually Veterans Affairs Canada. It was in another context, but we do have a veterans independence program and treatment benefit program where we do try to.... At one point, we reached out every year to do an assessment, really for the benefit of the veteran, to ask, has your condition worsened? Is there more treatment? Is there anything more we need to do?
Then there was push-back to the effect that we were constantly reaching out to question it, and a decision was taken to stop doing that. The fact of the matter is that, by doing that, some veterans were not getting the care they really needed because their conditions were changing.
The long and the short of it is that I really don't think we're doing that today in that context. Certainly, in the pension's pain and suffering award context, there would not be a scenario where we would be asking them to verify that they've lost their legs, for sure.