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.