Interventions in Committee
 
 
 
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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 Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Mr. Chairman, fellow members of Parliament, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for the first time. I appreciate the good work that members do on behalf of Canadian veterans and their families. I want to thank you for the hard work that went into your most recent reports, “Reaching out: Improving Service Delivery to Canadian Veterans” and “Mental Health of Canadian Veterans: a Family Purpose”. The former already precipitated a great deal of change since it was tabled a year ago and the latter is very near to my heart as a long-term advocate for mental health awareness.
We have been taking action on your recommendations to ensure the programs that we deliver are efficient, valued, and meet the needs of our veterans. As I'm sure you're aware, our own internal report, “Delivering Service Excellence”, released earlier this year, complemented many of the recommendations that you made. We are committed to improving our current system. We have a plan in place to address the recommendations. We are hard at work implementing them. We are overhauling how we deliver services. While it will take five years to successfully complete the transition, 90% of the recommendations will be completed within three years. A few of the things that will take longer rely on other government departments or policy changes that are outside our authority.
Those changes are key improvements to the many systems, services, support measures, benefits and programs that veterans need to successfully transition to civilian life. I am proud to take office during this pivotal time in order to help implement them.
I talk many times about my own connection to the Canadian Armed Forces: the fact that I grew up at CFB Goose Bay, and that my brother Danny is a lieutenant commander in the Royal Canadian Navy. Actually, growing up at CFB Goose Bay—I don't know if I've ever told you, Mr. Chair—I was taught at a very early age that Trenton was nirvana. All the CAF forces at CFB Goose Bay couldn't wait to get back to Trenton. I said, “Someday I have to visit it.”
In discussions with my brother, he made me aware of some of the challenges even before I came into this role. It was quite fitting and an honour and a privilege to be named Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Associate Minister of National Defence, and to work alongside members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, veterans, and their families. This has given me the opportunity to take on these essential tasks of improving service delivery, closing the seam between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada, and ensuring financial security for the most seriously ill and injured veterans.
We are here today to talk about what my department is doing, how the supplementary estimates reflect our approach to veterans' well-being, our accomplishments, and the work that remains to be done. Specifically, Veterans Affairs will receive an additional $26.1 million in these supplementary estimates, a 0.6% increase to $4.7 billion.
Before I speak to where we increased our estimates for new programs, it's important to point out that 90% of that budget figure represents payments directly to veterans and their families. For many veterans, this means the pain and suffering disability award in recognition of her or his injury. More than that, though, it goes to the earnings loss benefit of 90% of their pre-release salary, paid out during vocational rehabilitation. It also goes to the vocational rehabilitation that works with the veteran through the injury, which might be a barrier to finding her or his new normal.
If that veteran cannot re-establish after rehabilitation, it provides through the extended earnings loss benefit of 90% of pre-release salary paid out until the age of 65. It also goes to the career impact allowance if the veteran has a severe and permanent impairment, and to the career impact allowance supplement if that impairment results in a diminished earning capacity.
When a veteran turns 65, it goes to the retirement income security benefit or the supplementary retirement benefit.
Ultimately, all veterans who come to one of our many area offices can now be assured that most of our funding is used to recognize their pain and suffering and to set up and maintain wellness programs that provide a safety net during their recovery.
Let me say this again because it's an important point. Ultimately, for any veteran who comes to the door of one of our many area offices today, they can rest assured that the majority of our funding is going towards recognizing their pain and suffering, and establishing and maintaining the well-being programs that provide a safety net while they are mending.
But we still have work to do. We are enhancing the financial security and wellness elements of the new Veterans Charter to help veterans and their families transition to civilian life and make choices about what they want to do next, whether it be work, education, or other activities.
These supplementary estimates (B) primarily include funding for several budget 2017 initiatives. This funding and our overall guiding focus is about improving the lives of Canadian veterans, whether it be through enhanced education and employment services, the new caregiver recognition benefit that will provide $1,000 a month tax-free to the informal caregiver, or other critical programs we introduced in budget 2017, which will be implemented on April 1, 2018.
Of course, some of the funding went to the Invictus Games Toronto 2017, where veterans and active military members alike embraced the power of sport as they pushed through barriers and proudly represented our country. While it was an incredible event for the millions of spectators, I know there are many veterans who need more support from us, and that's why we're here today.
We are on the right track to improving our support for veterans. For example, of the 67,000 individuals who received the disability award increase reflected in these estimates, which put approximately $700 million in the pockets of our veterans, around 37,000 received their amended payment immediately, as a result of our move towards a fully automated system.
Having already done so much in reinforcing the benefits that make up our wellness model and bolstering the successes of the new Veterans Charter, we will announce more details on our monthly pension option for veterans shortly. We know this is an eagerly awaited announcement. We are committed to giving veterans and their families the best options to ensure their financial security and getting them the best possible support in their post-military lives.
We are all here to serve Canada's veterans. At the end of the day, those who need our assistance now or in the future need to know that we are here to assist them, and that we will continue to expand and adapt to the needs of our growing and diverse veterans community, especially with the help of this committee.
Thank you for your time.
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
When we talk about the potential additional cost savings by moving to community mailboxes, you talk about an extra $320 million per year. There is $80 million per year that's claimed to have been saved by converting about 850,000 doors to community mailboxes. There's discussion about converting the rest—about 28% of homes that still have directly to the door delivery—to community mailboxes. That's about $100 per unit per year. Do you feel that using tax money to subsidize this type of higher level of service is justified? Or do you believe that all things being considered equal, the community mailbox service is a high enough level of service when you take into account that if we don't go ahead and do this, we'll have to find the $320 million elsewhere? Maybe you disagree with the premise. Mr. Mayor?
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
That's interesting.
When we look at some of the things that have been proposed by the task force, they talked about further streamlining of processing operations and further synergies with Purolator, with those two combined items providing up to $82 million in annual savings. It must be on their radar because you've spoken with them about it.
When it comes to franchise outlets—and maybe this is more a question to you as a consumer—when you think of going to Canada Post, is it important to your business whether or not you're walking into a Canada Post that is associated with another corporation like Shoppers Drug Mart or that you're walking into a corporate store? Do you feel you're getting better service at one versus the other? How has past franchising of operations affected your business, and has it been significant or not?
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
Have you seen any differential between franchise operations versus corporate operations when those errors arise?
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
When we look at other things in terms of competition between Purolator and Canada Post and the Canada Post differential products, such as express mail service versus regular mail, do you feel that the right balance is there, or do you feel that the best possible service should be offered, or are we making some services inferior so that we can sell other services at a higher price? From your perspective as a mail carrier, how does this all work?
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'm sorry I will be missing it. It's always a good time.
Thinking about the future, we look at the task force report and it paints a pretty gloomy picture. Even if it's wrong by a few percentage points, there are very slim margins for a very high-revenue business, so there's a lot of risk baked in. If we're thinking about potential future opportunities, I look at some of the things we've talked about in previous editions of the committee, possibilities for expanded service offerings. People have talked about evening and weekend delivery for Canada Post, taking it in the other direction to offer more interesting e-commerce solutions. Maybe there's an opportunity for logistics fulfillment and delivery.
Do you feel that your members would take advantage of those types of services, back-end logistics services or delivery? Are there e-commerce companies here in the Kitchener-Waterloo area that would like to see an expanded service offering from Canada Post?
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
Well, Purolator is 92%-owned by Canada Post, so it's an interesting situation there.
View Nick Whalen Profile
Lib. (NL)
Not all regions of the country get these based around a world-class research institution like yours, but there are farming communities in what you call the greater Kitchener-Waterloo area. Are there any gaps in service delivery out there? Do you see, as we've seen in other parts of Ontario, that banks are retracting their local service offerings and people have to travel farther and farther to get the day-to-day services they need, or is service availability still pretty widespread throughout the area?
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