Yes, Mr. Chair, thank you. I hope my voice will project in the room.
Mr. Chair and members of the committee, good morning.
I would like to highlight that Captain Navy (Retired) Dr. Cyd Courchesne, who is Veterans Affairs' chief medical officer, and Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Dr. Alex Heber, who is Veterans Affairs' chief psychiatrist, are joining me here and providing me backup.
I am very pleased to present you with an update on the efforts of Veterans Affairs to support our veterans and their families.
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen of the committee, I am pleased to be here today to present the current state of our department to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Over our history, more than two million Canadians have served our nation in uniform. Today, one in 57 Canadians has served at some time in their lives, and those who serve and veterans are integral members of every community from coast to coast to coast.
Veterans Affairs' role is to provide services and benefits to all military and RCMP veterans, Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP serving members and their families. Currently, we have some 189,000 clients, representing about 18% of Canada's total veteran population.
We also promote recognition and remembrance of the achievements and sacrifices of all those who have served Canada.
Our programming has evolved so that we can better meet the needs of today's veterans. We take a holistic approach to maintaining the health and well-being of veterans over their lifetimes.
More than 90% of our department's budget goes to programs and services directly for veterans and their families. The department ensures that there are always sufficient funds available so that all veterans who have an entitlement receive the benefits and services they need.
To carry out its mandate, the department ensures there are always sufficient funds available so that veterans receive the benefits and services they need.
The majority of our budget is what is regarded as quasi-statutory funding, which means the budget is non-discretionary and based on an annual estimate of veterans' requirements for benefits and services.
We frame our estimates to ensure that we have adequate funds to meet the projected veteran needs and that we stay in the black by a small margin. When we see an increased demand, as we did in the first quarter of last year, we requested and received additional funds. Over the past five years, the trend has been to close the year with just a little bit above the water line. I'm looking at my chief financial officer. These funds are returned to the consolidated revenue fund and then immediately returned to us at the next fiscal year based upon the new forecast of veteran needs.
In other words, regardless of whether 10 or 10,000 veterans apply, they will receive the benefits they need, in accordance with our funding system.
Indeed, more veterans are coming forward requesting support. Since 2015, we have seen an increase of more than 60% of all disability application types and more than 90% in first applications. This increased volume indicates that veterans are more aware of the benefits they need and are entitled to receive for their well-being. Veterans Affairs has responded to the increase in volume by simplifying and consolidating benefits, adding and training staff, integrating various functions and, where possible, digitizing decision-making processes.
We have streamlined the way we make decisions on benefits and programs so that the less complex cases take less time, allowing enhanced and faster consideration of complex cases. We now triage claims for disability benefits. This allows us to expedite applications for those veterans at higher risk.
We have hired hundreds of additional staff, including case managers and others, who work directly with veterans. Additionally, we have hired hundreds to process disability applications and to administer the pension for life benefits, which came into effect on April 1 last year, and veterans can check the wait times for most programs and services on the VAC website. More importantly, they can track the status of their own applications through their online My VAC Account, which now has over 108,000 users.
Our partnership with the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces is also helping to improve service delivery. We are working together more and more to reduce complexity of transition, harmonize services, provide clear guidance, integrate case management and provide timely access to benefits and services.
While we've made some progress in dealing with the increased volume, we still have some way to go. We recognize that having a backlog is not in the best interests of our veterans' well-being.
Each year thousands of members leave the forces and undergo a period of transition. About two-thirds of the Canadian Armed Forces members make a smooth transition to life after service. About one-third report that they are not satisfied or have difficulty in their transition.
Our research has found that their difficulties can be centred on one or more of what we call the seven domains of well-being. The well-being framework includes having purpose, financial security, adequate shelter, physical and mental health, family support, integration into the community and pride in their identity.
As such, and to assist in the transition, the department has operationalized several programs with benefits in recent years to align with these domains of well-being. For example, to incentivize releasing members to prepare for civilian life and assist in finding purpose, veterans with at least six years of service may access the new education and training benefit or use the career transition services program to assist in finding civilian employment.
Enhanced family programs recognize those who care for injured veterans. Families of medically released veterans can now access programs at 32 military family resource centres on the Canadian Armed Forces bases.
Suitable housing is key to veterans' well-being. One homeless veteran is indeed one too many.
The veterans emergency fund assists veterans in dire need who are experiencing financial hardship. The department works with local organizations to prevent homelessness, identify veterans at risk, inform them about benefits, and help them find appropriate shelter and treatment.
We are also working closely with Employment and Social Development Canada under the national housing strategy and Canada's homelessness strategy to bolster veteran housing initiatives.
To enable mental well-being, the department ensures that veterans and their family members have the mental health support needed. Veterans Affairs Canada partners with the provinces to fund a network of specialized operational stress injury clinics across the country providing veterans direct access to care. Each clinic provides assessment, treatment, prevention and support to serving Canadian Armed Forces members, RCMP members, and veterans. The clinics work closely with health care providers and organizations in the community to help follow up when needed.
Veterans can access mental health supports even while awaiting a decision on their disability application.
Any veteran, as well as their family, can call Veterans Affairs Canada's assistance service 24 hours per day to speak immediately with a mental health professional.
We understand the important role that families play in supporting our veterans and continue to look at ways and means to support them. Our policy that covers mental health services for family members has remained fundamentally unchanged since 2010. The purpose of providing mental health services to family members is to support the veteran's treatment or rehabilitation toward wellness. Meanwhile, if a family member requires long-term support or mental health treatment for their own mental health condition, Veterans Affairs staff will assist them in locating assistance.
We continue to make strong efforts to prevent suicide. The implementation of the joint Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada suicide prevention strategy helps reduce risk, build resilience and prevent suicide among our military members and veterans. The department also funds a centre of excellence on PTSD and related mental health conditions. Their research will enhance the knowledge about effective assessment and treatment and will be shared with mental health practitioners across the entire country.
Pride in their service and achievements and remembering the sacrifice of brethren is key to veteran identity and well-being. Our commemoration program is an essential component of the well-being framework.
Last year was very active for commemoration, with the 75th anniversary of the Italian campaign, D-Day, the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Scheldt. The year 2019 also saw the fifth anniversary of the end of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan and important progress toward a national monument to commemorate those who served and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
In 2020, we will also celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands, the Battle of the Atlantic, Victory in Europe Day and Victory over Japan Day. We will also celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Korean War and the 105th anniversary of the Second Battle of Ypres in the First World War.
All of these activities serve to strengthen the connection of our distinguished veterans to the youth of Canada, reinforcing the tradition of service in our nation.
Members of the committee, that is a wave-top view of the operations of Veterans Affairs Canada. We face rapidly increasing requests for our services and programs. We've made strides in improving those services and delivering them, yet there's still so much work to be done. I am confident, however, that our folks will exercise this noble responsibility with care, compassion and respect.
Thank you for your question.
The time frame depends on the person. Sometimes, we are waiting on medical information. For instance, a person might submit their claim and then go to Florida for six months. If they don't have anyone checking their mail, the claim is held up for six months.
Another thing that can delay the processing of a claim is a veteran's medical or service records. In those cases, we are quite proactive about getting the issue resolved. The problem is usually out of the veteran's control. We also have people who forgot that they submitted a claim and never got back to us.
What's more, some people have brown envelope syndrome, meaning, they don't like to open mail from the Government of Canada. Oftentimes, that affects veterans struggling with mental health issues. It's about more than being worried about having to pay a bill; they have real fears. Our staff try to help those people.
We strongly encourage veterans to apply through My VAC Account. I'll use this opportunity to promote our online system. Approximately 60% of claims come in through the online system, which doesn't accept incomplete claims. Essentially, the purpose is to speed up service delivery. The more automated the system, the quicker the turnaround for services. The back-end application still needs a lot of work, though, but the front-end application works quite well, and it's really helping. I should point out that it's now much easier to apply, so of course, the number of claims has gone up. The easier it is to apply, the more people who do. That's good, because it's what we want. The system helps us reduce the number of incomplete claims.
We also have people who don't sign their claims. It may seem trivial, but if the claim isn't signed, we have to call the person. If they don't answer, it can become a vicious circle. Naturally, when they provide the missing information, their claim goes back into the system, in the same spot in the queue. The system is based on the first-in, first-out principle.
I can't give you an exact processing time frame, because each case is different. We have people who spend their winters in Florida or elsewhere—veterans have a good pension, after all. When they come back to Canada in May, they call us to inquire about their claim. Meanwhile, we've been waiting for additional information for the past six months.
First, thanks for coming in today. Obviously, it's always good to see you, General Natynczyk.
This is the veterans affairs committee so I'd like to point out that today is the 120th anniversary of the Battle of Paardeberg, which was the first time we deployed Canadian troops overseas, and my alma mater regiment, the RCR was recognized. We'll talk about that a little later today when I make a statement in the House.
Going back to some of the questions here, you talked about the desire to hire more veterans. Without a doubt, that's one of the complaints I've been hearing, “It would be a lot better if I were talking to somebody who understood what my service meant and what the challenges are.” What are you doing to get that number up? Your aspiration of 10%, sir, is great. I'd like you to drive it north of 50% if you could, because when people understand it, I think that would speed up the whole process. It would also solve your training challenge because they'd need to be trained on the system, but they'd understand the type of questions being asked.
My second question may be a little more difficult. It's tied to some of the complaints I've been getting. I was shocked at the wait times for a number of currently serving personnel, the number of them and how long it's taking for them to be processed because they have a little more access and availability. Are the files of those currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces being treated or processed any differently from those who are retired? Tied to that as well, because I'm getting some interesting things and I don't have anything I can put a name to, are the files of any of the people who have a sexual misconduct class action suit against the DND being treated any differently? I've been getting indications that maybe they are.
With the delay issue, you talk about the transfer of medical files and the lack of signatures. Has there been a look at the process to do a quick file review, something that can be done almost instantaneously, whether it's electronically or otherwise? They could go through the file and they could get that first response so they're not waiting 16 weeks only to be told they forgot to sign the paperwork.
You talked about the challenge of getting the medical files from the Canadian Armed Forces. What's being done to resolve that so those files are coming in very quickly?
My final point is, we're getting indications a lot of the files are being denied on the first go-around, yet when they're going to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, over 50% of them —that stat may not be 100% accurate; I'd have to pull it out—are being approved based on the adjudication or the first assessment of the claim. We need to fix that, I think, so we're not delaying people for so long just to have the wrong decision. I could understand if you got an 80% batting average of the claims being approved and everybody's happy, not that you're going to make everybody happy, but you have a large number of them appealing it and the decision is the policy was wrongly applied.
Those are a lot of questions. Do your best, please.
In a minute and a half, yes, yes, no and no.
On veteran hiring, not every veteran makes a great social worker. We have to be very careful, because sometimes bringing folks in triggers.... At the same time, as one of my kids going through basic training told me, “Hey, Dad, that sergeant major is old school”, and he may not make the best social worker. We have to be very cautious how we bring people in. Do they have the right personality?
When I go to my office in Trenton, Ontario, a third of the staff are veterans, a third of the staff are military spouses, and a third are career public servants who generally have a link to someone who has served. If I go to the atrium in Charlottetown and ask who has a family member who has been in the military, hands are almost unanimously up.
It's finding the right balance across the board. You need folks who are social workers, but at the same time, we do want to bring in more veterans, the right veterans, across the board.
Second, on the currently serving, the challenge of those currently serving is who has a full diagnosis. Sometimes what happens is someone gets hurt in morning PT or on an exercise, goes in, gets a chit, takes the old Tylenol or Motrin, and puts in a claim. We don't have a diagnosis yet. The injury is not fully developed or enduring, and yet we have a claim.
Twenty-five per cent of all the claims Michel is dealing with are from currently serving Canadian Armed Forces members, yet the problem frequently—and we are working with the Canadian Armed Forces and the surgeon general on this—is that often there isn't a diagnosis because the injury has not matured to that point yet.
We don't know about temporary category and permanent category until we know that the injury is enduring. That's one of the problems we're having. We're trying to deal with the Canadian Armed Forces on that by asking, “What's the gateway to put in a claim?” Often, folks don't even want to come forward with an injury because they might be pulled off a course.
In terms of sexual class actions, we are not treating those files any differently. In fact, we're putting additional attention....
Walt, it's great to see you again. Thank you to you and your team for being here today. It's much appreciated.
As you know, Walt, I represent Halifax. Not only are we home to the east coast navy, 5th Canadian Division, the Mighty Maroon Machine, but across the harbour is 12 Wing Shearwater. I think we have in the Halifax area among the highest, if not the highest, concentration of veterans living anywhere in the country. This is a very important issue to me and veterans not just in Halifax but across the country.
First of all, I want to say thank you for your clarification with your water line analogy around the budget surplus at the end of the year. There have been some cynical efforts to frame that as a failure. Of course, any one of us would run our household accounts in the same way. To hear that those surplus monies, thin though they are, are turned back into the budget the following year is a good clarification.
I want to go after another cynical line of attack, which is that the backlogs are a sign of a failure. I believe that any successful organization or service is in demand. If there were no one lined up at the door, I would be more worried that perhaps VAC wasn't providing the services that are needed. I want to test that attempt to frame the backlog as a failure.
You've given us some metrics already around budget, hiring and all that, but you see where I'm going with this. I wonder if you could paint a picture, drawing on whatever programs or services you provide, whether they are the family resource centres, programs to transition to post-service life, or any of the suite, to help explain the popularity of the programs now. That could help explain why you're so much more busy and why you're so much more successful and that accounts for the increased demand.
Can I touch on the budget again?
I know my chief financial officer will start to quiver here. We get the money we require for veterans, and we're never sure how many veterans will present. The one variable we don't control is the number of veterans who ask for service. We start off each financial year based on the best evidence and the best rigour, projecting how many might be in long-term care, how many might need physiotherapy and so on. But we're not absolutely sure.
Last year in particular, with the pension for life, a new program, we were not sure how many folks would go for the lump sum versus the monthly. We could project it based on a best financial decision, but we just didn't know. The reality is, as we kicked off the last financial year, we were in the area of $4.1 billion to $4.2 billion. In the first quarter, we saw a lot more veterans coming forward, and a lot more veterans than projected going for the lump sum. Sara and her team had to put in a request for over $900 million additional funding in a year. Because it's a statutory obligation, there is no discretion. The government gave us that funding, and we are going through that at a rapid rate to get more decisions out the door.
Through the discussion about the new programming over the past few years, mindful that we have implemented, operationalized, over $10 billion of new programming.... If you recall, two years ago I was here with minister . In 2018, we did 45 town halls coast to coast, five regional summits and a national summit. We went to social media to get out the message about all these extraordinary programs. People listened, and I was absolutely thrilled to see more people applying.
In 2015, for example, the career transition services we had at that time.... I still remember one of the first briefings I got from the chief financial officer saying we had to reduce the career transition services from $300,000 to $50,000. I asked why would we do that. He said that we only had 13 people apply. This year we're spending a lot of money on career transition services, because people are coming forward and using it to get career counselling and to find a civilian job where they want to settle.
I was absolutely thrilled with the education and training benefit. Here is the first time since World War II that we're implementing a program for folks who retired healthy, not a program only for medically releasing, because medically releasing today, even before this program, could access up to $78,500 for vocational rehabilitation. I have met ordinary seamen, retired, going through a Ph.D. in psychology on vocational rehab in Vancouver. Now they have the education and training benefit, and literally hundreds of veterans are coming forward.
We are also incentivizing people to stay in the military. That's why we set up the six-year period and the 12-year period.
Thank you so much for the question. When we think about supporting our veterans, we know that often veterans will leave the armed forces and things will go sideways.
I talked to one veteran who was in Vanier. The last thing a veteran gives up is the cellphone and, just before that, it's the pickup truck. This veteran called in. He had been part of the Royal Canadian Regiment. I called up the veteran, a corporal who did two tours of Afghanistan, and asked him how he had landed up on the streets of Vanier. He said, “Sir, I didn't want to tell anybody about my injuries because I didn't want the buds to know I was sick, so I didn't do anything.” He got out voluntarily. He went out to Fort McMoney—Fort McMurray—drove a big truck until the demons set in, then got fired and is on the streets of Vanier.
In order to be able to pick up this veteran and ask how we can provide a roof over that person's head, we now have a veteran emergency fund. For the first time, we can spend money on supporting a veteran even before we've proven eligibility. We can pick them up from the front doorstep, put a roof over their head, put groceries on the table and say, “Figure out who you are.”
Also, it's about working with the community. That's why I was thrilled with the multi-faith centre on the old Rockcliffe base. It's an investment of over $10 million to build 40 units where veterans want to come together within this community, within the identity. It puts a roof over their heads while they're going through addiction treatment, mental health treatment or vocational rehabilitation and moves them down that path.
Minister MacAulay and I were just in Calgary. Homes For Heroes is exactly the same, recognizing that at Homes For Heroes there is
an air force member from Saguenay
along with one veteran, a soldier, from Aurora, Ontario, and one from Calgary, but there they are in Homes For Heroes now, with, again, Veterans Affairs providing support through the well-being fund for them from a former military police sergeant who is an addiction counsellor. Our well-being fund is supporting that individual, who is mentoring 15 veterans going through all of this treatment.
It is a community effort, assisted by this veteran emergency fund, the well-being fund, but also, as I mentioned in my comments, by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation's providing support to great initiatives like the multi-faith centre in order to give veterans an opportunity to get off the street.
I would also say that of the tranche of well-being initiatives last year, 12 went towards homelessness.
Over to you, Steven.
Coming into the department, especially an organization that had lost so many folks, and with a head office away from the national capital in a small community.... For a headquarters to go from 2,000 folks to 1,100 folks was a shock, and it kind of goes to this notion of a perfect storm. Mr. Casey is living right there in the community and he knows what it was like. People were scared to make a decision. As the chief of the defence staff, I was watching this from my side of the Rideau and saying, “Oh my goodness. What's going on?”
Coming into the job, I wanted to make sure that everybody in the department felt empowered to make the right decisions. I had the notion of delegating authority, empowering people to make a decision and then trusting them to do it right. I still remember back in November 2014 visiting our office here in Ottawa and confirming when I visited Halifax and confirming when I visited Ville de Québec the fact that our folks were almost shell-shocked because of this onslaught, this tsunami of mental health injured veterans, and yet at the same time, there seemed to be difficulty in getting the message back to head office that was going through the shock wave.
Having served in a number of operations, I came up with the line, “The further you are from the sound of the guns, the less you understand.” I came up with that one in Baghdad. The same holds true in our department. Our front-line workers who are social workers, occupational therapists and psychologists are meeting with veterans every day, looking them in the eye, looking the family in the eye, and they're trying to find a way to say yes. They are working in the grey zone, and they're seeing the reality, whereas the further you are from the veteran in this case the more things become binary. You're working in policy or you're working in finance. Not to disparage my colleagues, but that's the reality of it.
We had the notion of care, compassion and respect. Our mission was to care. If we have to default in decision-making, it's to compassion, and we will always respect the veterans. The reality is that if folks default to compassion, we will support them. Again, we have to follow legislation and regulation and so on, but it empowers people to make decisions.
We think about where we were in 2014, and we just found out recently that Veterans Affairs Canada is in the Forbes top 100 employers. What was the number? Was it 74? It was in the top 100, and so we've come a long way. We see again that our employees are feeling that additional folks have come on and assisted them.
We are dealing with the backlog. In the town halls that I have done recently and the town halls that the minister has done, we have heard about the backlog and we're pulling out the stops. But in terms of empowering employees to make the right decisions for veterans and to nudge them into well-being, this is tough. Some of these folks don't want to be nudged. We need to nudge them towards purpose. We need to nudge them towards their mental and physical well-being. We need to provide family support around them. That takes a lot of care and compassion.