Thank you very much.
My name is Jim Scott, and I'm the president of the Equitas society, a forum to underwrite the disbursement costs to have six disabled soldiers represent their issues through the courts on the new Veterans Charter's compensation packages for injuries.
Next to me is Brian McKenna. He is a veteran injured in the Afghan war and a member of our advisory committee.
My involvement came from my son, who was injured in Afghanistan, and from looking at his settlements and also the settlements of other reservists who went to the Afghan war. They appeared disproportionately low, and therefore the services of Miller Thomson, a law firm with offices across Canada, was obtained on a pro bono basis to do a judicial review of those benefit packages.
Over 200 soldiers submitted their medical records and their compensation package, and six were selected to represent all soldiers. Those six have agreed to have their cases made public in the public domain. We'll discuss them because there's a theme throughout the delivery model.
First, we are very happy and we see great encouragement from the government providing new benefits in the process going forward. I am very pleased that the committee is looking at the discrepancy between programs and what often goes into the individual soldier's compensation package, and the reasons for that. I don't think it's anything sinister; it's just what occurs when you have a major organization like the federal government running a program.
The first area we'll talk about is the conflict between the different government departments. Each department will apply a different standard to the same conditions, resulting in various opinions. For example, the Department of National Defence may discharge a soldier from their duties for not meeting their universality of service because of certain injuries they have incurred, but Veterans Affairs Canada will not accept those injuries and will not compensate for them, and the Canada Revenue Agency may not consider the soldier is in a disabled category for the credits.
We'll use my son as a representative case. He had a number of internal organs removed as a result of an explosion in Afghanistan, one of them being his spleen. The medical records he got from the Canadian government—understand that he was in American care for much of his recovery overseas—showed that his spleen was operated on. His claim was rejected because they said he had not proved that his spleen was removed, but had only been operated on. This went on for years. I don't know if it has been settled now. It's just an illustration that the Department of National Defence has records that are not accepted by VAC, and then the duty is placed on the soldier to show evidence of that disability. It's evidence-based, but the soldiers can't go into the United States government's system and extract medical records. They just don't have that ability.
One solution is that the lead counsel for Miller Thomson has written what has been used in other Commonwealth countries, a sort of veterans' bill of rights. I've given the clerk a version of this in English, and he will have it translated into French. It ensures continuity among the various government departments that deal with a veteran's files, and not simply Veterans Affairs Canada.
I realize that Veterans Affairs put into some of their amendments a preamble and legislation that address this issue, but as we can see, there is more than one act that affects soldiers.
There's going to be resistance in the Department of Justice and the civil service regarding what we call the “slippery slope argument”, which is that if we enshrine this for soldiers, others will follow, and this will mean a higher duty of care for the government in the long run. Therefore, we're asking that parliamentary leadership be provided by this committee and others to look at the Commonwealth countries that have put this bill in place and to look at the reasons for it and to advocate for it, because it certainly will not be advocated outwards by the system.
The second issue that we see is the issue of lifelong pensions. Currently we have the earnings loss benefits. They have increased, and that is a very good development. However, the earnings loss benefits require the person to remain sick. In other words, they have to show that they are entitled to those earnings loss benefits, and, as we've seen in recent national coverage, they have to indicate that they are still sick in order to receive those benefits. There's little allowance for personal betterment. Therefore, it's our position that people stay in a cycle of sickness because every 18 or 24 months they have to prove they are sick, and they can't move on.
A pension recognizes that people are disadvantaged in their ability to earn an income. It supplements them in an attempt to equalize what an able-bodied person's earning capacity would be against a disabled person's earning capacity, and there's no penalty for being better. In other words, it's a platform on which they can go further up. Our submission is that a lifelong pension, even if it's the same amount of money as the earnings loss benefit, for the mental health of the soldiers allows them to move on, whereas the earnings loss benefit traps them into a process of constantly having to justify why they're receiving those funds.
With regard to caregivers, the theme we have seen throughout the files we have been processing is that when a soldier is at a certain level of disability, their spouse is required to remove herself or himself from the workforce in order to be a full-time giver of care to the disabled member. We have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people who are double amputees and even with one triple amputee. It's very clear that the spouse is the primary caregiver and is required for that person to have a meaningful life going forward. However, the caregiver is not eligible for private sector pensions and CPP, but only for old age security.
Even though we make great fanfare about how we've gone from 50% to 70%, I'd urge the committee to actually do a model of what these caregivers get in real dollars. We have models and we are certainly prepared to give the committee these models. Their actual income upon the death of their spouse will be at or below the poverty line. I don't know if we've really considered the duty of care that these individuals are giving and what the result is. The result is that they are basically going to be in a life of poverty at some point.
The next issue is education. There's been lots of fanfare about education. We're highly supportive of higher education. Trades for disabled soldiers with missing legs and so on are difficult. A lot of them need to go on to be lawyers or to get MBAs in order to be competitive in the workplace. We're seeing government policies showing high amounts for education, but in reality they're not being approved. I'll give an example from our representative plaintiff, Gavin Flett.
He paid for his own undergraduate education. He went into financial services because he can no longer go into a place of employment such as the RCMP, which he thought he would be hired by after he came back from Afghanistan, due to lower-leg injuries. He was advised by his employer that he would need higher education to move forward in the industry. He applied for an MBA that had 2,400 applicants. They took very few. He filled out a very long request. It was rejected. It was rejected on an administrative issue, which was that he would not be able to complete anything meaningful with his first $25,000, and that money couldn't be applied to the full program. Therefore, he was rejected outright.
He continues to have no educational support, even though he would probably be one of Canada's best examples of somebody going forward.
I get phone calls on a regular basis from other veterans across Canada who are in the same situation of seeking higher education and simply not being able to get it because of the process.
I think the solution is to develop a policy to get disabled soldiers into higher education if they can meet the standards.
I'll go to the next issue. We're not here to make enemies with VAC; it's just that there is a culture of what we call “no”. There is very often a rejection of your claim, and then you have to be persistent on it and go before the review committee. If it is sent up to the Federal Court it only comes back, as it must go back to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board if there's no resolution, and it can get stuck in a cycle.
I'll give you another example from a representative plaintiff, this being my son again. He had part of his pancreas removed. He made a claim through that process that it was causing him dietary issues, and it went up and was denied. He got a letter of denial saying that it had no effect on his well-being.
The next issue we'll talk about is service delivery. We have not really seen—and I can speak for the law firm—such complex acts and so many rules and regulations as the new Veterans Charter and the Pension Act. These are very, very difficult acts to administer, and general government workers just don't have the skill to work with these acts, regulations, and benefits.
What we find is that there's no real advocate. I mean, certainly there's the Legion, and we applaud them for what they are doing, but within the system there's no advocate. Some of the help that they need is actually more on a legal side than it is on a processing side. For example, we've had one representative plaintiff who had gone through a matrimonial issue, and the first question that the plaintiff asked was, “Is the lump sum settlement subject to a 50-50 split? When she leaves, does she take half of my lump sum settlement?” This is actually legal advice; it's very specific legal advice that even matrimonial lawyers may not know.
One of the solutions here that I offer to the committee is that Ms. Kelsey Sherriff, one of the counsel for Miller Thomson, submitted to the Veterans Affairs minister within the last two weeks a pro bono private industry proposal whereby lawyers across Canada who have a military background are prepared to act for free for individual soldier cases, such as on the matrimonial issue.
They will need some seed money to start from the federal government, but it will be a self-sustaining program that will have very little cost to the government but a high amount of benefit to the individual soldiers who find themselves in sometimes difficult situations that are hard for the Veterans Affairs Canada staff and even generous lawyers to deal with.
The last issue we want to talk about is mental health. One item that we found is that nearly all the claims have involved some sort of mental health issues. The administrators of the programs are really not trained to deal with people with mental health issues, some of which are severe. Therefore, there becomes a standoff.
I got a call, probably a month ago, from somebody who was in jail. He called me and told me he needed a lawyer. The issue was that he'd gone to a Veterans Affairs Canada office for help, had become unruly, was arrested, and then was in jail. He calls on fairly regular basis, so obviously there's an underlying issue there other than his claim, and it's beyond the capability of front-line workers to deal with it, so they simply defer it into the criminal justice system.
The other issue is that the processing of these files is leading to real mental health issues for the applicants. For instance, the soldier who worked so long to be accepted into an MBA program is absolutely devastated that the Canadian government has found a bureaucratic reason to prevent him from going forward with his career.
Personally, my son will not open any of his mail anymore from Veterans Affairs Canada, because by far 95% of it is bad news. I don't think we're helping any by having a very complex administrative system.
Those in general are the issues we have discovered from the files we've been exposed to, as far as service delivery is concerned.
Certainly we're prepared to take questions.