Interventions in Committee
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Craig L. Dalton
View Craig L. Dalton Profile
Craig L. Dalton
2019-06-10 15:36
Mr. Chair, committee members, thank you for inviting me here today and for providing me with the opportunity to share the results of our 2019 Office of the Veterans Ombudsman Report Card.
As mentioned, I'm joined here today by the deputy ombudsman, Sharon Squire.
Excuse me if I go back a bit to first principles, as this is my first time to appear before you. As you're aware, the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman has really a two-part mandate, and the first and most important part of that mandate is to respond to individual veteran's complaints, or complaints raised by spouses or survivors. The second part of our mandate is to recognize and identify issues that may be affecting more than one veteran, therefore representing perhaps a systemic issue. Under our mandate, we have the opportunity to investigate those issues and, where appropriate, make recommendations to VAC to improve programs and services. That's really where the report card comes in and that's why we're here today.
This is the third year that our office has released the report card. It was first released in 2017. The report card is a tool for us that allows us to capture, track and report publicly on recommendations that our office has made to Veterans Affairs Canada to improve programs and services.
The report card allows us to do a couple of things as we report publicly. The first is to acknowledge progress that's been made, and in fact to celebrate where changes have been made to programs and services to the benefit of veterans and their families. More importantly, from our office, it allows us an opportunity, on a regular basis, to shine a light on areas that we think still need some attention, and that's what the report card this year does.
I'd just like to share a few highlights with you, if I may.
Three areas where we've seen progress this year, progress that we believe will be well received by veterans, are as follows. The first is that veterans will now be able to retroactively claim reimbursement for treatment costs to the date of application as opposed to the date of decision for disability award and now pain and suffering compensation applications, which we believe is a significant improvement. The second is that, at the age of 65, all veterans who have a diminished earning capability assessment will now receive 70% of their income replacement benefit, which is very important in terms of financial security post-65. The third is that it's good to see movement on issuing of veterans' service cards, which the veterans community has been calling for, for quite some time.
We do like to acknowledge and recognize these improvements that have been made.
As I said, it's also an opportunity for us to shine a light on areas that still need some attention. As of the point of reporting this year, there are still 13 OVO recommendations that have yet to be addressed. The majority of those recommendations relate to the two areas that we hear about most commonly in complaints from veterans. They are in the areas of health care supports and service delivery.
In releasing the report card and sharing it with the minister, I took the opportunity to highlight three of those recommendations that we think would warrant attention as a matter of priority. They are as follows.
The first is expanding access to caregiver benefits, which is something we hear and continue to hear about on a regular basis from veterans groups and veterans advocates.
The second is covering mental health treatment for family members in their own right. Having had the opportunity in my first few months to meet with a number of veterans, and spouses in some cases, and to hear about some of the circumstances and challenges that family members, and in particular children, face when dealing with having a parent who was injured or is severely ill as a result of service, makes me wonder whether or not we're doing all we can do to support children and families. We think that's an important area.
The last is to provide fair and adequate access to long-term care and, to a lesser extent, the veterans independence program.
Those are three areas that we believe are important and I highlighted those to the minister. We will continue to follow government's actions in response to our recommendations and will continue to report publicly to you, the committee, and to Canadians on progress as needed.
As I mentioned earlier, I'd also like to take this opportunity to share my priorities with you, after having spent six months on the ground now and having had the opportunity to speak to a number of veterans, a number of veterans groups and advocates. We've taken some time to identify the priority areas that we think need to be addressed next. Again, these aren't ideas that we came up with sitting and talking amongst ourselves. This is what we hear from veterans who phone our office and from veterans groups and advocates. I'd like to share those priorities with you briefly.
The first priority, from my perspective, goes back to the key component in our mandate, and that's providing direct support to veterans and their families when they believe they've been treated unfairly. We're still a fairly young office, and our front-line staff have done very good work to this point in time. However, based on what we've heard from veterans and what we hear through our client satisfaction surveys, we have some work to do to make sure that we deliver an even better service and that we clarify what our mandate is, what we do and what we don't do, so that veterans who need our help will actually come to us. This is a significant priority for me and our number one priority.
Additional priorities include health care supports. As I mentioned earlier, this is the area that we receive complaints about the most. I'm led to believe that this area has not been looked at in quite some time, so we want to help move things forward in this regard by taking a broad look at VAC health care supports to identify areas we think might need some attention.
Third would be transition. I think we're all well aware of the importance of the transition process and ensuring that veterans and their families are well set up for post-service life. This is an area that continues to, thankfully, gain a lot of attention. We're particularly interested in looking at the area of vocational rehabilitation and the programs and services that help veterans find purpose in post-service life.
As we do this work—and we've also heard this through engagement over the last number of months—there are a few groups that we believe need to be considered a little more closely and a little more deliberately. They include women veterans. I've had the chance to speak to a number of women veterans and women's advocates. It's clear that a number of the programs and services they have access to were not designed specifically with women service members in mind or women veterans in mind. This is an area that we think is going to require significant focus going forward.
Second are veterans of the reserves. We've received a number of complaints, again related to specific programs. In looking into those complaints, it's become clear that, while the program is well intended, well designed and works well for regular force veterans, that's not always the case for reservist veterans. We think there's enough of an issue there to broaden that scope a bit and make sure the programs and services that are being provided adequately take into account the unique nature of reserve component service.
The last priority—and I mentioned this earlier—is families. Just in the brief amount of time I've been here speaking with veterans and families, we believe that this is another area we need to look at a little more closely to make sure we understand what the impacts on families, particularly children, are and that we have programs and services that adequately take this into account.
The last piece I would mention is just a bit of ongoing work that we initiated a number of months ago in terms of conducting a financial analysis of the pension for life. That work is more than just a financial analysis. We're going to monitor the implementation, and we are monitoring the implementation with a view to producing a report sometime late this year or perhaps even early 2020, after we've had time to watch it be implemented and get a sense of what the impact is on the ground.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to share an overview of the report card and also speak to some of our priorities going forward.
I'd be happy to take any questions, if there are any.
View Alaina Lockhart Profile
Lib. (NB)
The other thing that we heard recently in testimony is about what I think was referred to as “death by a thousand cuts”, so there is a PTSD issue or there is a mental health issue, but on top of that there's a service delivery issue or there are other outside factors like relationships or money issues and what have you.
There are some things that we can't control as a government, obviously, but do you expect the work that we're doing on service delivery to have an impact on suicide prevention?
Michel Doiron
View Michel Doiron Profile
Michel Doiron
2016-12-08 16:47
I look forward to your report on service delivery. I'm not sure when it will be tabled, but I do look forward to it. The last time ACVA tabled a report, there was stuff that we did use and it was very useful, so I'm looking forward to it.
For sure it is known, not just with suicide but in treating mental health in general, that the faster we can get them into treatment, the faster we can get them the care they need and the better it is for the individual. It's probably true for all illnesses. With any delays in approvals or getting them into treatment, there's an impact. That's why we're working so hard on the service delivery review that the department has been doing, but also on how to modernize our systems, get more stuff online—eliminating some of the bureaucracy is maybe the best word to use—to move it forward.
Understanding that we are governed by a multitude of acts and regulations that are laws, I can't just decide that I'm going to do X. There's a law that I have to comply with. That said, we are doing some work on that. The health care provisions are one we're starting to look into, and the financial benefit suite that we have. At the end of the day, where we're trying to go, and we've really undertaken this in the last little bit, is focusing on the veteran's well-being. You'll hear a lot about veteran-centricity, veteran-centric not program-centric, and not just making sure all the boxes in the system are.... What does the veteran need, when, and how? Let's get to it and let's get them trained.
Unfortunately, we're still heavy on the administration, and I don't mean staff when I say that, please. I mean the documentation and some of the stuff that we need to do, and sometimes it's to comply with acts. People like to say, that's what the act says. I am not a lawyer. I've been in the public service a long time, so I ask them to show me in the act where it says that. Often, over time, and this is my eighth department, people start adding requirements because of one bad apple somewhere throughout the years, and all of a sudden that becomes the policy.
Let's eliminate that policy, and our minister and deputy minister have really challenged the department to get rid of these areas, ensuring though that we don't break laws and we follow what we're supposed to. We have to or the OAG will come in and give recommendations, but let's take care of our veterans. The bottom line is care, compassion, and respect, and not just saying those words but getting them there.
In mental health, with 16 weeks, okay, I'm meeting my service standard but it's a long time to get your diagnosis and treatment. We know that and we're trying to do that much faster. For some other stuff, maybe it's acceptable.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 15:44
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee. Thank you for having me here today.
It's my pleasure to speak to you today about this important topic of service delivery.
My name is Debbie Lowther, and I am the chair and co-founder of VETS Canada, Veterans Emergency Transition Services. I am also the spouse of a military veteran of 15 years who was medically released in 2005. My husband and I co-founded VETS Canada in 2010.
The aim of VETS Canada is to provide assistance to veterans who are in crisis, who are at risk of homelessness, or who are already homeless.
What sets us apart from other organizations is that we don't wait for the veteran to come to us to ask for help. We go out in search of the veteran and offer them help. We're a volunteer-led organization. We have teams of volunteers in every province and major urban centre across the country, and those teams, as I said, go out into the streets conducting what we call “boots on the ground walks”. They visit the shelters, the drop-in centres, and the areas of the streets where the people who might need some help would be frequenting.
We also respond to referrals from shelters, from concerned family members, and from other organizations, including Veterans Affairs. In 2014 we were awarded a contract by the federal government, making us service providers to Veterans Affairs in the field of crisis and homeless veterans' outreach. To date, we've had the privilege of assisting over 1,200 veterans across this country.
The first thing we do when we come across a veteran who needs some help is to connect them to Veterans Affairs, because we want to make sure veterans are getting the services and benefits they may be entitled to from the department.
What does that mean? That means we deal with the department quite frequently, either on behalf of the veterans or with the veterans, because they sometimes find that process very overwhelming. Our volunteers will act as a mediator, hand-holder, or whatever the need might be.
With that frequent interaction with the department, what are we seeing? We're seeing that over the past couple of years there have been a lot of improvements with the department. We're also seeing that there is improvement still to be made.
In the past few years, the department has reduced the number of forms it takes for a veteran to apply for benefits and services, and that's been a welcome change. The department has endeavoured to reduce turnaround times in processing applications for disability benefits. The goal is 16 weeks. It's been our experience that the majority of the veterans we assist are receiving their benefits in that time frame. Over the past year, for some reason, the cases we're seeing have become increasingly complex, and it takes a little longer for those folks to get their responses.
Over the past six months, we've had the opportunity to work with some of the new Veterans Affairs case managers who have been hired, and it's been noted that with the decreased caseload, or lighter caseload, our veterans are receiving a faster response time from their case managers. For veterans who previously may have had to wait 48 to 72 hours to hear back from a case manager, we're finding that now they're getting a call back in less than 48 hours, and sometimes in less than 24 hours. We do believe that the hiring of additional case managers has been a great improvement.
It has been our experience that there are inconsistencies in how information about benefits is communicated to veterans. More often than not, the case managers are helpful and forthcoming with the information on benefits and services, but there are times, if the veterans don't know the right questions to ask, then they don't get the information, and they don't know what they're entitled to. Imagine a veteran who is struggling with PTSD, and who can barely get out of his house to go to the grocery store, trying to navigate the process of applications for benefits. We would like to see a more standardized process of case manager and client or veteran interaction, with maybe a checklist of some sort.
We're aware that the department is making efforts to provide a more seamless transition from the military by strengthening partnerships with the Department of National Defence, which is a sensible move, we feel. One issue that is frequently brought up, and probably one of the most frustrating, is the fact that when a veteran is still serving, that veteran may undergo a medical assessment by a military doctor to determine whether an injury or illness is service related. When that veteran transfers over to Veterans Affairs, he may have to be reassessed by Veterans Affairs doctors for that same condition or illness.
We've seen cases where people have been released from the military, they've been followed up by military doctors, their conditions have been determined to be a result of their service, and then they are followed up by Veterans Affairs doctors and their benefits are denied. They say that it's not service related. That's one frustration that impedes the seamless transition, we believe.
In closing, I will repeat what I said at the beginning. We've seen a lot of improvements over the last little while, but there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made. We do believe in continued consultation with community groups and veterans themselves. As Nora alluded to, we need collaboration rather than duplication, and we believe there are a lot of organizations that can work together for the betterment of our men and women who served this country. I think it's important for the department to continue to consult with the community organizations and the veterans to get the feedback they need.
I would like to thank you for having me here today.
View Irene Mathyssen Profile
Thank you.
Madame Lowther, you talked about boots on the ground and how you find veterans who are living on the street. Could you walk us through the process? You find the veterans and then you put them in touch with Veterans Affairs. What happens then? What does VAC do?
Debbie Lowther
View Debbie Lowther Profile
Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:02
I have to say that with a majority of the veterans we have taken to VAC, the ones who are in that state of crisis and are actually homeless, the case managers have been really good in trying to expedite their applications for benefits. We've seen some of our veterans have a turnaround time of two weeks for ELB, which is practically unheard of. Veterans Affairs does present the benefits that might be available to that veteran.
We also work with other organizations, because sometimes the veteran isn't entitled to anything from Veterans Affairs. They don't have a service-related injury, or they may have served only a short period of time. Then we rely on other provincial social support systems. For the most part, however, Veterans Affairs tends to provide for the needs they have.
George Zimmerman
View George Zimmerman Profile
George Zimmerman
2016-06-14 17:04
Thank you very much.
My name is Captain RCN (Retired) George Zimmerman. Let me first start by thanking you for the opportunity you've given to me to work with you on an issue that is so important to millions of Canadians, which, of course, is the well-being of our military and naval veterans in a just society.
Second, please accept my gratitude for your service to Canada. I understand very well the very deep sacrifices and the challenges and the long hours that go into public service. I served the navy in the Canadian Armed Forces for 38 years; 10 years as a reservist, and then 30 years as a military chaplain. Despite the significant demands of my military taskmasters over all that time, I'm immensely proud I had such an opportunity to dedicate myself to the two pillars that, of course, hold up a modern civilization, and those are the church and the state. I would, without equivocation, do it again in a heartbeat.
I retired as a senior officer in the office of the chaplain general with the rank of captain navy six years ago. I watched in sadness and somewhat in horror a government policy that on the one hand lauded our military members with the praise that probably had not been seen in generations but on the other hand tightened fiscal policies so much so that they ended up disrespecting the very people who had given so much, including, in many cases, their well-being, if not their lives, to this amazing country.
Political activity is often anathema to retired military people, as we've been so conditioned to defer to authority. But I was motivated, because of the last four or five years, to speak out with truth to power due to the amazing and distressing evidence of injustice that has been perpetuated against veterans and their families.
I'm part of a group called Canadians for Veterans, and our role is to amplify, through social media or any other means, the voices of those who are speaking in favour of well-being for veterans. We pay attention to and we repeat veteran issues as reported in the media. We advertise upcoming and commemorative events involving veterans. We raise awareness of issues raised through government actions or announcements. We laud all veteran support groups, including, for example, Quilts of Valour, which is not a political organization; it just wants to support veterans.
We see you and we see all of these organizations as Canadians for veterans. While we try to avoid being drawn into one political organization or another, we know there are injustices against the veterans. There is unfairness out there, and so with due respect, we are privileged really to speak truth to power, and I thank you for that.
The position of Canadians for Veterans is simply that we don't really care who fixes the issues; we just want to see them fixed. You, of course, as elected officials, are dedicated to the leadership of this paradise of a country. The last bastion of the privileges we all enjoy in this astounding country of ours, this amazing land, versus horrific chaos is really the uniformed men and women of the Canadian Forces. They are the very last bastion between order and chaos.
Of course, they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifices for this cause. They sign an unlimited liability clause, as you know, as volunteer citizens. In our opinion, their sacrifice in a just society as advanced as ours calls for real, substantive, and fair compensation, especially when their lives have been adversely affected by the orders issued by the Government of Canada.
I'm very aware and sensitive that you've probably been fed a firehose of information over the last six or eight months. I do not wish to add to that burden today.
Canadians for Veterans are also aware that there are many complicated issues in the pursuit of fairness for veterans' services and benefits; that is not an easy fix. However, the complexity is no reason not to get it right, not to get it done. We are very well educated, we are a mature nation, and I believe we can do this and we can do it right.
I understand the Prime Minister requires 15 deliverables of the Minister of Veterans Affairs. They were found in the mandate letter issued in November. I know that Rome was not built in a day. It takes time. These issues and the new ones that have emerged since then can't be fixed quickly.
However, our recommendation to you today is to cut through a lot of the noise and focus on three really big issues.
The first item of course, which is on all advocates' lips, is finding a way to deal with the lifelong pension as an option for veterans. We're aware of the Equitas class action lawsuit that is regretfully active again, but we still think that Veterans Affairs can advance this file without compromising the integrity of that legal process.
We think it would show good faith to Canadians if the minister were to give target dates, some milestones, and any other barriers that the department may be facing in completing this deliverable. If that alone were to happen I think the collective sigh of veterans across the nation would be heard in a very significant way.
Canada does not want to read about unfairness and injustices like those experienced by Major Mark Campbell, who had the horrific experience of losing both his legs in his second tour in Afghanistan, which was after the 2006 new Veterans Charter. As a result he missed by a tour the opportunity for a long-term pension.
The second deliverable, which is probably worth looking at as a priority, is that one of the most marginalized groups requiring the deepest study about fairness are those who have served Canada as reservists. It's very difficult to work with reservist veterans because in many cases they are living in areas under-serviced by medical services. I understand that.
Canada is not necessarily militaristic, she is militaristic necessarily.
The reserves of Canada have made possible our international contributions to allow us as a country to punch above our own weight. The dedication of those reserve forces and their families has empowered this nation in ways that need to be recognized. Veterans Affairs is called to deliver practices and policies that implement the principle of one veteran, one standard.
Canada does not want to read ever again about the machinations needed to ensure fairness for the family of the reservist Corporal Nathan Cirillo after his murder while literally standing on guard for Canada. One veteran, one standard had to be created artificially in his case because otherwise his family would have been treated with standards less than a regular force member who is killed in the same manner. Justice dictates that it should be automatic.
As our third priority, we suggest you focus on the completion of those deliverables that support families. Like you, military members want to know that their loved ones will be well treated in the event that they can no longer provide for them as a result of injury or disease or death.
The second-most affected and vulnerable people of the injured or killed military are the families. I would ask that your committee speak loudly and clearly for the children and the spouses.
Unlike you, these wage earners volunteer to be placed in harm's way. An assurance that their families have longer-term security is an essential and necessary condition for good service. Completing the two relevant deliverables of the mandate letter, ending the time limit for surviving spouses to apply for vocational rehabilitation and increasing the surviving spousal pension to 70%, would deliver that condition. Canadians should not be exposed again to stories of family neglect such as we saw in the case of Jenifer Migneault.
Completing these three deliverables for veterans I think would go a long way toward reassuring millions of Canadians that indeed we are living in an advanced and just society that takes seriously the sacrifices of the volunteers to our army, our navy, and our air force.
Thank you for your time.
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