Interventions in Committee
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View Neil Ellis Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Neil Ellis Profile
2018-03-20 11:00
I call this meeting to order. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the committee will now study the subject matter of the supplementary estimates (C) for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2018, and the interim estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019.
I'd like to welcome the Honourable Seamus O'Regan, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and General (Retired) Walter Natynczyk, deputy minister of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Welcome, Minister, and thank you for coming today. We'll start with your 10 minutes.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
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.
View Neil Ellis Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Neil Ellis Profile
2018-03-20 11:10
Thank you, Minister.
We'll begin our questioning with a six-minute round.
I ask the committee to be patient today with the the time. We have another group, so I will be tight on time with everybody.
We'll start with Mr. McColeman for six minutes.
View Phil McColeman Profile
Thank you for being here, Minister.
In a report—I have a copy of it here and I'd be glad to share it with you—in The Globe and Mail published last week on Tuesday, March 13, two issues were brought forward.
The one I want to refer to was brought forward by Mr. Forbes, the head of the veterans associations in Canada. The article states:
According to Mr. Forbes, the new pensions for life will pay a maximum of $3,650 a month to the most severely disabled vets, while the Pension Act pays as much as $7,444 a month to qualified disabled vets who retired before 2006.
Mr. O'Regan has said there is little disparity between the two programs, but Mr. Forbes says the numbers prove that the minister is misinformed.
The commitment to restore the pensions for life has been the subject of veterans' expectations for the past three years, Mr. Forbes said.
But the pensions announced by the Liberal government 'didn't come close to closing the gap,' he said. 'We take the view that the commitment has basically been unfulfilled.”
What is your reaction to Mr. Forbes' comments?
View Phil McColeman Profile
Thank you. I'll move on to the next question.
This one is from the same article, actually, and it's that veterans are complaining that the new education and training benefit does not match what was promised in the days leading up to the 2015 election. Veterans groups are saying that pensions for life were also part of that Liberal platform and are paying much less. This is a quote from Sean Bruyea, a veterans' advocate, who says, "Politicians need to stop expecting veterans will swoon at empty political promises". It goes on to say that your leader, the Prime Minister, said, “ We'll cover the cost of four years of post-secondary education for every veteran who wants one."
The article goes on to talk about the fact that this is actually not happening, that this is not available to all veterans. Can you speak to that?
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Sure. The education benefit is available to those who fall under the new Veterans Charter. That would be those veterans who have made a claim from 2006 onward. I am incredibly proud of the education benefit because it is exceedingly generous. It is $40,000 for six years of service, and at 12 years of service, it's $80,000. It's a grant. It allows veterans complete and utter flexibility on what they want to study. It can be anything and at an institution of their choosing. It covers not just tuition. It also covers room and board, books, and everything associated with their education. In fact, upon graduation, it also includes a small graduation bonus of $1,000. It gives them another lease on life, and it also provides them the flexibility to choose to do it anytime within 10 years after they leave. If they change their mind, they can do something else.
View Phil McColeman Profile
Is it available to all veterans, and you said no, just the ones after the new Veterans Charter came into effect. It's not available to all veterans as per the promise that was made.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
It's for those under the new Veterans Charter.
View Phil McColeman Profile
The promise that was made in the election campaign in 2015 is that it would be available to all veterans, but it's not.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Well, there is an educational benefit that is available under—
View Phil McColeman Profile
No, full education, sir.
View Phil McColeman Profile
Could I go back to the quote? It's about four years of fully paid education and it's not available to all veterans. Thank you for answering that.
Let's move on to my third comment and question. The third one comes from a recent study done by the National Association of Federal Retirees. They developed a veterans outreach initiative in 2017 to determine what has and what has not been working for veterans. Under the title “Respect”, their 2018 report says:
There were two areas where veterans noted a feeling of lack of respect when dealing with VAC: feeling they have to fight for benefits, and some interactions with VAC staff. Many felt that processes were intentionally difficult to discourage applications or to deny benefits. While interactions with VAC staff were generally positive when they occurred, there were several instances where veterans identified that staff had treated them poorly.
If you're doing all you can, why are veterans still feeling disrespected?
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
That is a tough question. We are attempting to change the culture. From the time I was appointed minister—I think it was one or two days afterwards—the deputy and I went right to Charlottetown to speak to the bulk of the employees who would work at VAC and who would be in Charlottetown. We said that we did want to change the culture there. As I had described in my opening remarks, it was a “pull” culture that really left it to the veterans to find what programs and services were available to them. We did want to create what we call a “push” culture. In other words, we're going to tell you everything that you should be entitled to, and we'll do that in a pleasant and effective way.
I think I told this committee before that I am impatient by nature, and let me tell you that in the town halls we have been doing across the country since the beginning of January—and we just got back from Edmonton where we did five meetings in total and two full town halls—there is nothing that will hold your feet to the fire, with all due respect to this committee, than having a veteran stand at a mike and tell you, “I'm not getting the services I need.”
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