Good morning, everyone.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee on Tuesday, February 26, 2020, the committee is commencing its study on the subject matter of supplementary estimates (B), 2019-20, vote 5b under Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Minister of Veterans Affairs, the , will be with us for the first hour. He will have 10 minutes for his opening statement, which will be followed by rounds of questions. He is accompanied by officials from Veterans Affairs Canada today.
We again welcome General Walter Natynczyk.
I'm sure you'll get one of those cards for frequent flyers that you can punch, General.
We also welcome Sara Lantz, acting assistant deputy minister, chief financial officer and corporate services branch, and Rick Christopher, director general, centralized operations. The officials will stay with us for the second hour of questions.
On a procedural note, at page 1016 of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, under “Estimates” and “Consideration in Committee”, it is stated that the questions and discussions at these meetings are “generally wide-ranging”, but that the rule of relevance still does apply.
Minister MacAulay, the first 10 minutes are all yours, sir.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and congratulations on your election as chair.
Congratulations to the committee on the work you do. I look forward to working with you over the next number of months and years.
It's an honour for me to be here to talk about Canada's brave veterans and to bring you up to date on the activities and priorities of Veterans Affairs Canada as we move forward.
Our priority is always to help veterans get the support and services they need. We do this through disability benefits, education and training support, and other financial benefits. More than 90% of the department's budget goes directly to benefits and services for veterans.
As you know, I am here today regarding the supplementary estimates (B). These estimates reflect the department's final and updated forecast for the 2019-20 fiscal year. These include internal transfers that would help us fulfill our commitment to support Canada's veterans.
Last fall, my department requested an additional $857.6 million through the supplementary estimates (A), bringing the total budget for my department to $5.3 billion. That budget of $5.3 billion is over $1.5 billion more than it was five years ago. Of course, there is more work to be done, but that is a big deal. This is money going into the pockets of veterans who have earned and deserve it.
As a result of the additional funds in the previous estimates, the current supplementary estimates (B) do not include additional funding for benefits and services. Rather, they include some transfers that will help us fulfill our commitments in support of Canada's veterans.
Through these estimates, we will transfer $700,000 to allow us to respond to the increased demands for the veterans emergency fund. This fund provides immediate support to veterans and their families in urgent circumstances for food, shelter, clothing and expenses to maintain safety. Nearly 800 veterans have already accessed the fund so far this year.
The department also works with local organizations to try to prevent homelessness. We work with local organizations that can help identify a veteran who is experiencing homelessness or is at risk.
We're also increasing the veteran and family well-being fund by $1.8 million to support and implement new initiatives that promote the well-being of veterans and their families.
For example, the fund has supported The Mustard Seed organization in Calgary, which works with the recently developed Homes for Heroes village of tiny houses to support veterans in moving into accommodations and long-term housing. This is a concrete example of how the well-being fund makes a difference in veterans' lives.
Our mandate is to ensure that every veteran gets the benefits they earned and the services they need, and the department ensures there are always sufficient funds available to do so. The point is that no matter how many veterans come forward—10 or 10,000—the funds will always be there.
Demand for our programs, benefits and services is growing. For example, applications for disability benefits have increased by more than 60% since 2015. First-time applications have increased by 90%. Other programs and benefits are seeing more demand as well. Partly, this is because of greater awareness among the veteran community of the benefits and services available. Another reason is that we're offering more programs and services to a wider group of veterans, such as the education and training benefit and the career transition services. However, this has also meant that the backlog of cases has built up.
Let me start by saying that the backlog is unacceptable. The waiting times being faced by veterans are unacceptable. We need to tackle this issue and address the backlog, and I can assure you that it is my top priority.
We've hired hundreds of staff, including more caseworkers, who work directly with veterans and their families, and we have hired hundreds more to process disability applications and to administer benefits. We have also simplified benefits. We are bringing in more digitization and streamlining the decision-making process.
Simpler cases now can take less time to process, allowing faster consideration for more complex cases. While we have made some progress in dealing with the increased volume, we still have a lot of work to do. We also understand the important role families play in supporting their veterans and continue to look at ways and means to support them.
I can assure you that I am committed to ensuring that veterans and their families have the mental support they need when and where they need it. The department's policy that covers mental health services for family members has remained the same since 2010; however, we found that the policy was not being applied consistently. I have directed my department to act with the utmost care, compassion and respect, and to use maximum flexibility in applying this policy and working within the rules to ensure that it's applied as it was previously.
I have also tasked my department with a review of the policy, with a view to maximizing compassion for veterans and their families. I understand this committee has also adopted a motion to study support and benefits for veterans, caregivers and families, and I look forward to the results that this body has and any recommendations that you have for my department.
The department is currently conducting file reviews for any families who have been affected and we are reviewing the guidelines around the policy to ensure that we do everything we can to provide our veterans and their families with the care and the support they deserve.
Just as we need to show care, compassion and respect for our veterans, we also need to show care, compassion and respect to their families. Meanwhile, if a family member requires more long-term support or mental health treatment for their own separate mental health condition, our staff will assist them in finding appropriate assistance.
Before I conclude, I would like to highlight something I believe is very important because this past Sunday was International Women's Day. Last week I was very proud to announce the office of women and LGBTQ2 veterans. This office will work to identify and address barriers specific to women and LGBTQ2 veterans and their families, and work together with veterans and stakeholders. This will help to advance equality.
Honourable members of the committee, I thank you for your time and your dedication to our brave veterans. I look forward to working with you over the next weeks and months. My officials and I would be pleased to answer any questions that you have.
Thank you for that answer.
Also, as you know, this backlog started to really become alarming in 2017.
Many veterans who are watching today also watched a vote in the House of Commons on September 25, 2018. It was discovered that a non-veteran, a civilian, Christopher Garnier, who had murdered Catherine Campbell in Truro, Nova Scotia, and became convicted in a court of law of not only brutally killing her but taking her body and putting it into a container and putting it under a bridge, was receiving veteran benefits vis-à-vis his father who was a veteran. We asked the House of Commons to vote on whether this was appropriate for a convicted killer.
By the way, Catherine was 31 years old. She was a police officer and also a volunteer firefighter. She and her family have inspired me over the years. We recently lost her father who went from this world knowing that the man who brutally murdered and strangled his daughter is receiving veterans benefits. To a person on the government side, it was voted to maintain those benefits for Mr. Garnier.
Is Mr. Garnier still receiving benefits from the financial side of Veterans Affairs Canada?
Part of the military culture is that when you're in uniform, your ID card is near and dear to your heart. If you ever lose it, you have to report to the military police and get another card right away. As part of the veteran identity, one's own personal identity, the ID card is absolutely key, and the fact that the ID card is maintained during the transition from active service to becoming a veteran softens that transition. Over and above that, there are a number of pluses. Whether you're flying or travelling by rail or going wherever, the ID card is quite helpful to the family.
That is just to say that when we changed the policy and reintroduced the NDI 75—and that's the acronym, National Defence Identification 75—not only did we reinstitute it for those who were releasing, but then in a second phase, we backdated that to when the policy changed. I believe that was in February of 2016. Then we actually went another step and went all the way back to whoever was in service.
Again, a veteran is defined as someone who has completed basic training and is honourably released. As for the ID card, now to answer the question, tens of thousands have now applied. We know that in Canada we have in the order of 600,000-plus veterans, and the door is open to all of them.
We also want to encourage them to open up a My VAC Account, because they can apply, whether they are in downtown Toronto or in the hinterland way up north. If they have access to the Internet, they can create their My VAC Account and apply for their ID card online. It's accessible across the entire country.
Of course, in terms of its being appropriate funding, there's seldom ever enough funding. We can always use more funding, but you're right that a lot of funding has been added. A few years ago $10 million was added to it, and a lot of new programs were put in place.
But I think you're referring to the backlog. Of course, that is unacceptable, and we're working very hard in order to bring that under control. As was said in the previous conversation, if we can digitize, get people online, reduce the paperwork, simplify the application, that all helps. The simple fact is that sometimes when a veteran fills in the application, if one thing is missing that's vital to the application, it means it has to go back. That means a delay. There are so many things that cause the backlog, and it's most unfortunate for the veteran. We want to make sure they have all the services they can. There are a number of services added to it, for example the education fund. A number of things have been added.
Do you want to elaborate?
Yes, and we are. We deal with other countries right around the world. We deal with our allies, and we compare the process we use here with other countries around the world. That's why we have some of the changes that are in place.
One of the biggest examples was that, in the My VAC Account, if the application has to be complete before it will be accepted, it means that time is not wasted. The fact is that when a veteran fills out the application and signs it, as is indicated, we accept it. But if it's not complete, we have to go back. Phil asked why the backlog is there, and that's part of why. There are so many things we are working on to make sure that we don't.... We want to get the applications processed so that we can supply the benefits to the veterans.
There are quite a number of new programs for veterans that are vitally important to them. Number one is helping the veteran when he leaves the military and becomes a civilian. That is a big transition, so we want to make sure we have as many programs in place as we can to see that person become a valuable member of society. As you're well aware, the military has met basically every walk of life, and they have every expertise. Our responsibility as a government, and yours as a committee, is to make sure we have these people upgraded if need be, because industry needs them and society needs them.
We want to make sure they have a good life when they come out, and that's part of what I have to try to do.
Thank you for being here with us today, Minister.
Of course, I want to say thank you again for coming out to visit us in Comox on the 10th of February, when we celebrated the amazing plane of reconciliation project. I want to recognize the late Captain David Freeman, who spearheaded that project and wanted to acknowledge indigenous veterans in the area. It's just a beautiful plane in that area. Thank you again for supporting that project.
The wait times are a huge concern for me, and I'm happy to hear that they are for you as well. In fact, we've heard again and again from the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, from department staff and from veterans themselves that this is the biggest issue and the issue that keeps coming up over and over again.
When I look at the supplementary estimates, it looks to me as though there's a bit of a transfer from the VAC operations to other programming. I understand the value of programming, and I think whenever we can give resources to the veterans, that's really important. However, I'm concerned about the fact that the wait times are a challenge. If you're taking money from operations and moving it to programming, I'm wondering how that is a strategy to address the wait times.
Minister, I'm just going to read a portion of your mandate letter. I'm sure you're aware of it. It says that your mandate is to:
Improve transparency and communications so that Veterans and their families have clarity about and predictability of available benefits and services.
Minister, in December on the floor of the House of Commons I asked you a specific question on behalf of a veteran whose spouse had come home from her mental health appointment having been told by the doctor that in the new year those benefits would no longer be available to her. Your response to me was that there's been no change to policy and that they would continue to get benefits if it helped the veteran. Believe me; veterans are helped by their family members getting the care they need because they see their lives falling apart because of their health issues.
What concerns me, sir, is that you indicated there was no change of policy, but the veterans ombudsman went on to reveal that new restrictions were imposed not through a change in policy but more subtly through a reinterpretation of the existing rules of that bureaucracy.
Sir, I find this very disturbing, as do veterans. You know that there are more and more coming forward and concerned because of the semantics that were used to deal with this issue.
I would like to know who flagged this policy for review.
I'm certainly very supportive of this program because it helps veterans who have served our country, put their lives on the line and are in great difficulty.
You're looking for a figure, so I'll do my best. I mostly let the department do that, but 712 accessed the funds in 2018-19 and last year we added $700,000 to this fund as you're aware. Now over 800 people have already accessed this fund.
When you sit down with people, as I had the opportunity to do last week across western Canada, in British Columbia, in fact, to meet people who got help from this fund, getting their lives in order and becoming productive members of society.... There's a pride within us all, but I believe there's a different, very strong pride in the veterans community. They have served us and they do not want to ask for help. When they get down and out, that's exactly what this program does and that's why it's so important that it's well funded, because it gives people another chance in life.
The fact is, as I've said before, these people are very much needed. They have expertise in many areas. The deputy and I ran into people who were very well qualified in areas that the business community would be so pleased to have once they get their lives in order. That's the big help, and I appreciate your question.
I had the privilege of visiting there. To have had trouble in life and difficulties, probably with addictions or other things, to see them in their homes.... In fact, on the one that you just mentioned, there were two different families in those tiny houses who were just getting ready to move into their own homes. They had full-time jobs and were going to be full-time productive members of society.
I can tell you one thing. To be a politician and Minister of Veterans Affairs, that warms my heart. That's what it's all about, giving a person a hand up in order to become a productive member of society, and they are proud members of society who will add to our economy. That's what that is all about.
It's also important to indicate what the private sector has done, above and beyond government. They access funds through business communities, and it would amaze you, the different businesses that donate different things to those homes. Everybody wishes to be involved. They know that those people have served their country and they want to help.
These homes that are provided are basic. They're very small, but I can tell you that it puts a great sense of pride and security into the veterans themselves, men and women both. In particular, I met a woman veteran who was so highly qualified that, with just a little more, that person will be hired by a telecommunications company. That's what's so great.
Thank you so much.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Minister, for being here today.
Of course, General, Ms. Lantz and Mr. Christopher, it's always nice to see you all here. I've had the opportunity to have some discussions in P.E.I. with all of you.
My first question is related to the emergency fund, which was mentioned earlier. When you see a 70% increase in intake, it's a clear sign that the fund was necessary. When I started, back in 2015, that was probably one of the key issues on the table. We had emergencies and no one was there to help us. The emergency could be food, shelter, oil in the tank or homelessness. There are so many emergencies that individual veterans can face, and there seemed to be no pockets of money to help. It's not only the money, but what organizations are out there that can help.
As you know, Veterans Affairs is a department, but you need lots of support across the country from organizations to reach out. The increase in the intake has been high. What are we seeing on the ground as improvements, and what organizations are helping to get the message out and offer support? In Halifax, for example, I call VETS Canada, and they're right on the case. They're 24-7 and it's just amazing. These funds are coming forward to help, so I'd like to know a little more about the organizations and what they're doing to help veterans.
Thank you for your question.
The situation of homeless veterans is of the utmost concern to us. They often end up homeless as a result of a mental illness or injury. Providing assistance to all of those veterans is imperative.
As the minister said before, we are providing our employees with a great deal of flexibility by using the veterans emergency fund. If a veteran presents, we're able to find this person and give them a roof over their head and groceries while we figure out who they are. As soon as we understand who they are and whether they have a mental health injury, we're able to come in with a whole bunch of additional programs.
In addition to that, for the well-being fund that the minister was speaking about, over the past couple of years we have now put out 43 projects. Twelve of those projects were focused on homelessness. For example, the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal is an area where we have put resources in to assist those veterans in the city. We know that a large number of those veterans who are homeless were released with a mental health injury.
The minister was in Victoria last week and heard that 60% of the veterans who were at Cockrell House in Victoria were released for mental health injuries.
I'll ask Rick Christopher to add here.
It would be difficult to discern that because the one thing we cannot control is applications coming in the front door. If indeed applications carry on at a 90% increase, and if we template that forward.... Again, I'm working with the central agencies to template that out into the future, to say that if you want me to figure this out and if the trend carries on, then I need to have additional resources in the following areas.
With regard to being able to transfer funds to really important requirements like the emergency fund, which again is a life-saving fund and we know that, and the well-being fund, which supports things like homelessness, we know that we are able to hire but hiring an employee takes months. Each year I am able to carry forward from my operating budget—not the big quasi-stat budget, but from the operating budget—only 5%, which for this current year is about $16 million.
I know, because I've tried to hire everyone and in some parts of the country I can't hire enough. I'll give you an example of Alberta. It is still tough hiring social workers in Alberta, as it is in other parts of the country, so I know that I can't hire fast enough and some of this money will go unspent. What I don't want to do is to leave it on the table, so I take some of this money and put it into saving veterans' lives through these emergency funds.
Again, switching the colour of money, if I could, we were just talking about operations money before. Now we're talking about quasi-stat money.
With regard to the education and training benefit, the Government of Canada came out in 2018 with the education and training benefit. At the time, we worked in partnership with the Canadian Armed Forces to ensure that we are not incentivizing attrition. At that point, when it was rolled out, it was only for folks who had left the Canadian Forces totally.
Then there was the observation that, of those who were on the supplementary reserve—that is, folks who I will call “inactive service list”, and they can be on the supplementary reserve until the age of 60—many wanted access to the education and training benefit. Therefore, budget 2019, as of July of last summer, changed the policy so that those who are on the supplementary reserve can have access to the education and training benefit. I am just thrilled to see that we have in excess of 1,700 veterans who are either going through the education program or learning a secondary skill.
Thanks very much for the question.
I would say that the awareness of veteran benefits and programs over the past five years has really improved just because of the nature of great programs like the education and training benefit or the career transition service. A lot more veterans are aware of them, so over this past five years, as the minister indicated, we've seen a 90% increase in first applications and a 60% increase in all applications across the board. Because of the number of additional programs, we have had to wade in and do a lot of additional work on all those additional programs, which is absolutely fabulous, but we're now trying to leverage technology to make it much simpler for folks to get a decision.
For example, I've heard of circumstances where a veteran will apply for the career transition service and get the answer and approval within a half-hour, and then a counsellor calls him later on in the day and makes an appointment. An education and training benefit decision is made within a couple of weeks. We also know that something that is making it challenging on the applications, especially for disability, is that frequently the injury or condition may not be fully documented in the medical file. Whether that person is in the forces or has left the Canadian Armed Forces, in some cases the documentation is not clear.
In the perfect circumstance, if you get injured on an operation, on a training exercise, your injury is fully diagnosed and is in there. Then the decision can be made very easily.
I'll ask Rick to wade in here.
I'm not sure we've put together a document that lays out the multipronged approach we're taking on right now. We could generate the document that would lay it out, but we are moving forward in terms of the balance between the hiring of additional staff.
We have not been able to totally leverage technology. I've asked the team again, “How do I create what exists at CRA, where you use TurboTax to do your claims? How do I create a “TurboVet”, so that it is totally intuitive, to ensure that we get all the information we need?"
The challenge we have is that whether folks are serving in the forces or after release, in some cases, we do not get a diagnosis. Without a diagnosis, we can't even start.
I looked over the shoulder of a staffer the other day, and even after repeated requests to the doctor for a diagnosis, what came back is that the veteran feels pain in a knee. Is that a meniscus tear? Is it an ACL injury? What is the issue, so that we can move forward? Those types of things just add to it. It is getting the accuracy, using My VAC Account, but also it's breaking down the barriers in terms of the integrated teams.
Do you want to add something there?
It's not my job to cheerlead the government or the department. There are five people across the table who are doing an excellent job of that. It's my job to hold the department accountable for our veterans, and then, overall, I think we will get to the best outcome for people.
When I hear you and the minister talk about compassion and flexibility, and that you'll be there when and where veterans and their families need you, the rhetoric is not matching the reality of the situation we're hearing on the ground.
At least 133 families have been told that they may be cut off from mental health services. Twenty sessions on a 1-800 number is not the same as in-person counselling. We have a great program, but when we're cutting off in-person counselling, important programs for families of veterans, will the department commit, going forward, to close the gap we've seen increasing for families of veterans who are not getting the mental health services they deeply need and deeply deserve to have?
Yes, sir. Thanks very much.
Going back to an earlier question, we are working with our allies to do modelling in order to address the backlog and accelerate decision-making, specifically working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as well as the Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs to look at the kind of modelling they have done to accelerate their decision-making processes.
We are moving forward quickly. As mentioned in front of this panel before when it comes to mental health injuries, whereas previously the department used to try to associate the mental health injury with a particular circumstance, a particular operation, we've dispensed with that in order to accelerate the decision-making. If a veteran has served, there is no indication of a pre-existing mental health injury and we have a diagnosis, we move forward, to the point that we are approving 97% of all claims for PTSD.
I would turn it over to Rick Christopher to see if he has anything to add.
I'm going to be a bit of a broken record here.
We keep coming back to the challenges associated with the backlogs. This has been increasing now for.... I fully acknowledge the good news side of the story that we're getting more benefits out there, but I want to understand the plan.
I've worked for some former general officers, and if I went back to them and said, “Hey, boss, it's going to be two years before I get the plan for you and here's the timeline; we're going to solve it quickly”, I'm pretty sure you can guess how quickly I'd get the back end torn out of me.
When would that plan be available for this committee? This is really why we're here. It's to help you, to help the department, get the necessary resources and to help the veterans out so they have that transparency and understanding. As much as they're good soldiers, former veterans, if they're not complaining, sometimes your spidey sense goes off. However, ultimately we're there to help them. Once they understand the plan—and through mission command terminology—they will 100% be on board and be willing to accept it.
Right now I think the frustration is that they don't know when this is going to get resolved.
I really appreciate the question.
Again, from a military culture, turning around something into a plan makes absolute sense. We will turn that around as quickly as we can. Within the month, we should be able to take these four domains that I talked about—the idea of not only staffing but digitization, sorting out the process, as well as integrated teams, and combine that with the 12 action areas Mr. Christopher laid out to you, also with regard to the projection in the future.
The only thing we cannot predict is the tempo of the Canadian Armed Forces tomorrow. We cannot predict the number of men and women who are going to leave the forces, nor can we predict their injuries. That's the only thing we don't control. It's the volume of the intake.
However, we can use the existing information that we have. I say that because back in 2015 we predicted that by 2019 we would have 9,700 and some case-managed veterans. Today we're north of 13,000. The reality is that we could not be accurate. That's the nature of the business.
Thank you for that, General.
That was a lot better than the word salads we were hearing from the minister and frankly some of the other rhetoric. My colleague said that if this is the most important issue on the minister's agenda, then action should be taken.
What's most disappointing, frankly, is having been here to see the history of this particular issue. It goes back to 2017, when it was really first recognized. It's taken us three full years. This is 2020. Some of the other people who are senior in your management team promised us we would have a plan. We were told that in 2017.
As my colleague said, we have the responsibility as the official opposition here at committee to not ask the comfortable questions, but the uncomfortable questions. I know you appreciate the dynamic of what we are charged to do as parliamentarians.
I look back three years and I think of why the promises were unkept during those three years. For how many years have you been at the helm, sir?
I'll just say that we'll put the plan together and see what we can do in terms of digitizing and working on integrated.... We are absolutely pleased with the hard work of our employees across the board. We will develop the plan.
Again, I've been responsible from back in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, to now. I regret that the plan was not in front of you in 2017.
I'm pleased to be able to say, however—and maybe Rick can wade in here—that in about 2015-16 we used to produce about 2,500 decisions a month. Now we're at 5,000 decisions a month. All of the work we've put together already is doubling production and it's not enough. I need 6,000 decisions a month. Again, if there's another tsunami of claims, I might need 7,000 claims a month.
I cannot hire and train employees fast enough, so I need to rely on digitization.
I want to close by thanking all of you for being here today and helping us with.... I was just about to say “our study”. I forgot you were here with us last week. We're here to talk about estimates today.
If I can indulge the committee just for a moment—I promise it'll be about 30 seconds—I'll update everybody. The next meeting is March 12. It's the second of four meetings on the backlog. April 2, if we can jump ahead a bit, will be the beginning of the second study, federal supports and services to Canada's veterans, caregivers and families. If we can have witness lists for that study by Monday, March 16 at 4 p.m., and please, if you could all rank your lists in order of priority it helps the clerk set up the witness list.
Finally, we need to set a deadline for the receipt of briefs in relation to the backlog study. The analysts have recommended March 31, and that the text not exceed 2,000 words. That can all be submitted electronically. Is there any issue with any of those deadlines?
Seeing none, thank you very much, everybody.