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View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Madam Speaker, I will start this evening by sincerely thanking the member for Courtenay—Alberni. The motion we are discussing today, cloaked in the guise of financial reporting standards, cuts to the core of this government's commitment to the men and women who have bravely served this country.
As we draw closer to the centennial anniversary of the armistice that was supposed to end all wars, it is important that we consider the commitment we owe to those men who fought a century ago and to the men and women who have fought and protected us since.
Veterans Affairs' entire foundation is set around its responsibility to ensure that veterans and their families receive the respect, support, care and economic opportunities necessary as they transition to a post-military life.
Let us be clear. The support that our government gives members of the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans and their families begins the moment they are recruited and continues throughout their careers and their lives. We are ensuring that each of them has access to any program they need for as long as they need it.
The motion today is based on the premise that lapsed funding in Veterans Affairs Canada is in and of itself a problem. The motion seeks to address a concern that lapsed funding creates a use-it-or-lose-it scenario for the department. The assumption seems to be that when there are lapsed funds, there must be programs or services that have been underfunded or not delivered. This could not be further from the truth, which is why there is no need to change the accounting for a process that works for veterans. However, there is an opportunity today to explain and perhaps educate members on the root cause of lapsed funds.
Whether 10 veterans come forward or 10,000, no veteran who is eligible for a benefit will be turned away because we do not have the funds. To ensure that is the case, we go through the annual estimates process and forecast how many veterans will avail themselves of our benefits.
Given that demand can change throughout the year, our programs are quasi-statutory, so that the government does not need to come back to Parliament if we exceed our forecast of the demand from veterans. If a veteran is eligible for a benefit, that veteran will get it. When that pendulum swings the other way and there are fewer veterans seeking a particular benefit, the money stays in consolidated revenue ready to be used the next year.
Lapsed funding is not a new phenomenon, but it is critically important to distinguish the causes of those lapsed funds. This government has generated lapsed funding because, simply put, our estimates of the level of demand for services have been high. That is distinguishable from the previous government, which lapsed over $1 billion while cutting front-line staff, closing offices and letting the new veterans charter wither unchanged on the vine.
Simply put, one can generate lapsed funds and attendant cuts by placing barriers between veterans and the programs or services to which they are entitled.
The previous government demonstrated from the outset that it wanted to balance the budget and that veterans and their families were not immune from its red pen. We thought those cuts were unconscionable.
That is why our first acts in our first budget were to increase the disability award to a maximum of $360,000, where it should have been for years, and increase income replacement for ill and injured veterans to 90% of their pre-release salary. We reopened all of the offices the Conservatives closed. We started to staff up Veterans Affairs again after nearly a quarter of the workforce was wiped out by the Conservatives. We expanded eligibility to programs veterans were asking for. We made it easier to access dignified funeral and burial services. And we did not stop there.
In the budget of the following year, we introduced our new education and training benefit, which applies not only to ill and injured veterans but also to those leaving the Canadian Armed Forces for any reason after six years of service.
We reformed the broken career transition services that the Conservatives had ample opportunity to fix by changing it from cutting a cheque for $1,000 and saying “good luck on the job hunt” to a comprehensive program veterans and their families could access for job training and job-finding assistance.
Last December I was thrilled to finally unveil the new pension for life, which delivers on our campaign promise to provide a monthly tax-free payment for life in recognition of pain and suffering. This pension for life also simplifies many of the other benefits we offer, making it easier to apply for and access the resources veterans and their families need and deserve. It is no surprise, then, that since coming into office, we have marked a 37% increase in applications for programs and benefits. Veterans are coming forward again to get the help and the support they need in their post-military lives and careers.
We are getting better at forecasting the budget, but due to the nature of the demand-driven programs and services at Veterans Affairs Canada, we will never be able to estimate with 100% accuracy the exact funds required for every program. Looking at the types of services and benefits we provide and the continually evolving demographics that we serve, this approach cannot change.
There are approximately 649,300 veterans in Canada and 95,000 serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Veterans Affairs provides services to nearly 200,000 veterans, family members, RCMP members and others who require support.
Ranging in age from 18 to 100, we serve traditional veterans who served in the Korean War or earlier and modern-day veterans who served after the Korean War. To say we serve a changing and diverse population is an understatement, and each one of them has different needs.
This is why we have seen a significant increase in demand for programs and services, and that is a good thing. It means veterans are coming forward and getting the help they need.
In order to respond to this increased demand, the department has to request additional funds in the middle of the year. As many of my colleagues in the House are aware, these are the supplementary estimates. The department asks Treasury Board for more money, because we have more veterans who want more of the programs and services they are entitled to and, indeed, they deserve.
This is why our services are demand-driven, so whether it is 10 or 10,000 veterans coming forward, they will receive those services. Instead of going back every day when we see another veteran come forward, the department estimates how many people will access benefits and how much money is needed. It is not an exact science. This process guarantees that whether veterans come forward this year or next year or the year after that, we will always have the resources available for them and their families to access programs and services.
If we overestimate in our zeal to ensure that everyone who comes forward requiring that service or benefit receives it, then so be it. Our primary concern is to ensure that the funds are available if they are required, period. Government policy dictates that any money that is not used for its identified purpose by year end must be returned. It is as simple as that. Lapsed funds do not indicate lost money. They do not indicate penny-pinching at the expense of veterans.
Perhaps I have to remind my hon. colleague who put forward this motion that penny-pinching at the expense of veterans would look like a promise to balance the budget no matter what, to balance the budget come hell or high water, a promise he and his colleagues ran on in the last election.
Almost 20% of new funds in the last three budgets have been for veterans and their families, funds they would not have received if the New Democrats were running the show. We know this is a source of confusion amongst veterans and their families, amongst stakeholders, and amongst the general public. This is why we have been addressing it at town halls and stakeholder meetings right across this country.
Just last week we held our national stakeholder summit here in Ottawa. We covered this exact subject in depth to ensure that participants understood the process. We know they have questions. We wanted to explain exactly how an idea goes from a concept to implementation, from gaps or issues being identified to research and analysis to the memorandum to cabinet that paves the way to implement a new program or benefit.
The department's programs are ongoing, and each year adjustments are made to ensure that we can provide for all veterans and their families who may be entitled to benefits. My department will continue to provide programs and services that adapt to the changing needs of veterans and their families. We will continue to review these programs and services to see where things can be improved.
When we came to office, we knew we needed change. Veterans made it clear that there were problems, and they wanted them fixed. They deserved to have them fixed. The Prime Minister tasked us with an aggressive mandate to address these problems, from improving veterans financial support and reopening offices to streamlining the transition from military to civilian life and overhauling how the department's services are delivered. Three years later, we are on track or have delivered on all of them. However, make no mistake, wholesale change was needed to accomplish this, and that could not happen overnight, not if we wanted to do it right.
We also knew that a full conversation was needed. We could not start making decisions on an individual basis. We had to open a dialogue with those who were affected, and that is what we have been doing.
We have heard that service delivery is an issue, and we have been diligently taking steps to resolve this. As a starting point, we opened 10 offices to provide better in-person services to veterans and their families, in addition to hiring over 470 new staff, which has included close to 200 case managers.
Service delivery is now focused on individual veterans: their circumstances, needs and strengths and those of their families. The department is streamlining the processes for applying for and delivering benefits. It is also ensuring that veterans and their families get information they need about the programs, services and benefits they are entitled to, which has been an issue in the past. Some veterans simply do not know what is available to them.
We also increased service in the north, and in 2017, our staff made 12 trips to Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse to meet with veterans and their families. Our staff is committed to ensuring that veterans and their families are better informed, better served and better supported. The approach is working. Applications are on the rise. This is a good thing. It means that more veterans are applying for the benefits they have earned through their service to Canada. It is also why the department is focusing on improving service delivery and streamlining the application process.
This government made a commitment to make it easier for the men and women who have served in uniform to access the benefits they deserve, and we have spent $10 billion in three years to do just that. Starting with increasing the disability award and the earnings loss benefit and expanding the career impact allowance, we are putting more money in the pockets of veterans and caregivers. We also supported a continuum of mental health services, introduced new education and training benefits and expanded a range of services available to the families of medically released veterans.
While there has been a lot of change at Veterans Affairs, the steadfast commitment to veterans and their well-being has remained the same. It is that commitment to wanting to ensure overall well-being that drove the need to take a step back to look at how they could get to where they wanted and needed to be. They knew that well-being was defined as a veteran with purpose who is financially secure, safely housed, in good physical and mental health, highly resilient in the face of change, well integrated in the community and proud of his or her legacy. That fuelled the new vision of a comprehensive approach to veteran well-being to address all aspects of wellness.
In looking at the many factors, we can all agree, without a doubt, that without financial security, it is hard to focus on anything at all. That is why we pushed to reintroduce lifelong pensions. Last December, this government announced plans to restore the pension for life for ill and injured veterans. With the return of a monthly pension option, the pension for life recognizes and compensates veterans for disabilities resulting from a service-related illness or injury with a combination of benefits that provide recognition, income support and stability.
One of the key new benefits is pain and suffering compensation. This is a monthly, tax-free, lifelong payment recognizing a member's or veteran's pain and suffering caused by a disability resulting from a service-related illness or injury. The monthly amount can be cashed out for a lump sum, giving members and veterans the flexibility to choose what works best for them and their families.
Additional support for those with service-related severe and permanent impairments causing a barrier to re-establishment into post-service life is available through the additional pain and suffering compensation, provided as a monthly tax-free benefit.
The income replacement benefit is a monthly program that will replace six current benefits and will provide income support for those facing barriers to re-establishment caused by health problems resulting primarily from service. Additionally, veterans who are able to join the workforce may earn up to $20,000 per year before any reduction to their IRB payment.
Set to come into force on April 1 of next year, the pension for life combines what veterans have been asking for with the most up-to-date research and understanding of the well-being of veterans. More important, it will become an integral part of that comprehensive approach to the well-being of veterans, reinforcing all the programs and services available at Veterans Affairs, of which mental health is a priority.
Pension for life was announced with budget 2018, which reflected other commitments of our government when it came to better supporting veterans and their families. In addition to the $24.4 million over five years for cemetery and grave maintenance to eliminate the current backlog of grave repairs, budget 2018 also committed $42.8 million over two years to increase service delivery capacity, building off the $78.1 million already invested over the last two years.
Make no mistake, Veterans Affairs continues to strive to provide faster, more efficient and higher quality service for our veterans. However, in our efforts to accomplish this, we must rely on our expenditures forecasting to ensure no veteran or family member goes without. That will always result in some degree of lapsed funding. That is simply the nature of the government's accounting process.
I think all of us here can agree that Canada's veterans deserve respect, financial security and fair treatment. I assure members that this government is committed to treating our veterans with the care, compassion and respect they have earned. This government will never cease in our efforts to improve the lives of our veterans and their families.
View Christine Moore Profile
Madam Speaker, I want to begin by extending my deepest condolences to Catherine Campbell's family. Ms. Campbell was the victim of a horrific crime, and I cannot imagine the pain her parents and loved ones must be feeling. I also want to tell the family that Catherine Campbell's name will not be forgotten.
This story reminds us of how much more work needs to be done to address violence against women. Ms. Campbell had gone through police training, but sadly, she is no longer with us.
It was very important for me to extend my condolences to Ms. Campbell's family and to let them know that she will be in my thoughts as I fight to end violence against women, with the support of the NDP and many MPs.
Regarding veterans' benefits, it is important to understand that there is a huge backlog and that the process is extremely long and complex. In many cases, soldiers with chronic back pain, to give an example, send in all their forms and benefit claims, only to be told that their injury is not related to their military service. They then have to fight to prove that the injury really is related to their military service. That is one of the reasons frequently cited for denying benefits.
We understand that privacy is required in the case of Chris Garnier. However, judging by the information we have received and the public statements that were made, including at trial, the injury for which he is receiving treatment is in no way connected to his father's military service. There is no connection between his injury and military service.
In my opinion, Veterans Affairs Canada should not be paying benefits in this case. Chris Garnier can get the care he needs from Corrections Canada, but Veterans Affairs Canada certainly should not have to pay for his care, since this injury has no connection to his father's military service.
I do want to point out that when family members experience psychological trauma, this trauma is sometimes connected to military service. During their career, soldiers must regularly tell their spouse that they are being deployed, but that they do not know where or for how long.
This type of situation creates a tremendous amount of stress for the spouse, who has no idea if the person will come home or what that person is getting into. That is extremely stressful. In the long term, it can have an impact on the mental health of the military spouse and that of their children. In this case, there is a very clear link between the need for psychological care for family members and the military service of the spouse.
In the case of Ms. Campbell, the crime was especially heinous. The monstrosity of the crime aside, the logical conclusion is that there is no link between the injury and the military service of the father. We are also talking about a 30-year old man, not a teenager or a child who was still in their parents' care or whose parent was a soldier or veteran at the time that the injury occurred.
The important thing now is to discuss what is currently going on with veterans. Let us be clear and honest. I know veterans who served under the Pierre Trudeau government, and those who served under the Chrétien, Martin, and Mulroney governments, and even under the current Prime Minister. Not one can say that everything went smoothly under any of those governments or any prime minister. The problems at Veterans Affairs Canada have been going on for decades.
Everyone is trying to solve these problems but sadly, over time, other problems are created, especially with respect to access to services, which often discourages people. Generations of veterans have wound up feeling abandoned because they have had enough of the endless back and forth with Veterans Affairs about their cases and the never-ending medical exams. That is unacceptable. To their mind, the injury they received during their military service is so obvious that it cannot be challenged. Unfortunately, veterans regularly abandon their claims because they are no longer able to go on fighting and they cannot understand why they are made to feel guilty about asking for what they are entitled to. These are real injuries and there is no doubt about their military service, but they are regularly required to fight with the department. That is unacceptable.
Veterans come to our riding offices asking for help. They come with two-inch files full of papers, including their medical file, correspondence with Veterans Affairs Canada and third-party medical assessments, in the hopes of solving problems that sometimes seem unthinkable. The compensation requested is sometimes $2,000 or $5,000. With everything that has been done administratively to block their claims, I am convinced that it is more expensive for the department to try to prevent veterans from obtaining reasonable benefits.
Facing these kinds of situations, which happen every day, and knowing that benefits have been awarded in some cases, people have every right to wonder what is going on in the department. Why is such nonsense happening? So many soldiers need treatment, but there are also family members who have to fight, deal with delays and are turned away six times before they actually manage to speak with someone.
This is not to mention one particular group that is being deprived of services: francophones. All too often, people have a hard time obtaining services in French. Unfortunately, I know a few veterans who have ended up accepting services in English simply to speed up the process. It is extremely frustrating. We need to take immediate action today to provide better services to veterans.
I would also remind members of the $372 million allocated to Veterans Affairs Canada that has yet to be spent. With that funding, how many employees could be hired in the various offices to provide services? It is worth doing the math, since $372 million is a huge amount of money that was supposed to help veterans, but has yet to be spent. We should all be thinking about immediate action we could take together, as members, to quickly restore adequate services for veterans and their families.
Too many people never speak of the sacrifices they make throughout their spouse's military career because they do not want to affect their health. We need to recognize their sacrifices and acknowledge that they are very much linked to their spouse's military service. Any benefits received should be related to military service.
View Sherry Romanado Profile
Lib. (QC)
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise today to debate Bill C-378, an act to amend the Department of Veterans Affairs Act.
I want to thank the member for Barrie—Innisfil for his advocacy on behalf of veterans. It is a real pleasure working with him on the committee for veterans affairs.
I do not think that there is a person here today who does not want what is best for Canada's veterans. I know that the Government of Canada respects what veterans have done for this country, and will ensure that those with service-related pain and suffering will be well cared for and supported for life.
In hindsight, it is no secret that the new veterans charter introduced in 2006 was not completely successful. Some parts of it worked, but many others did not. The matter of the transition back to civilian life was never properly addressed.
When the Liberal government took office in 2015, the Prime Minister clearly indicated that the time had come to fix that. Veterans and their families deserve our respect and gratitude, and the existing system needed a major overhaul to create a process that is easy to access, simple to navigate, and focused on the veteran.
To accomplish this, he tasked the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence with an aggressive mandate, with 20 commitments that focused on three clear points.
First, the veteran must be at the centre of everything that Veterans Affairs Canada does. Second, we have to work harder to include the veteran's family in all planning, benefits, and services. Third, we have to do whatever we can to help every veteran reach their new normal.
A big step forward in achieving these goals is to regain the trust of Canada's veteran community, which is something the department has been making strides in by engaging with veterans and taking action. I have personally travelled to 12 wings and bases since March, and I have talked to our troops, veterans, and their families about how we can work together to get this right. As part of a military family, I believe it is important to listen to our veterans, our Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families, and I will always be willing to do so.
Veterans Affairs Canada has held stakeholder summits and working groups, has created six ministerial advisory groups, and has listened to concerns, ideas, and suggestions from veterans and veteran stakeholders from across the country. That feedback helped lead to our delivering on six mandate commitments in 2016, and to the initiatives that were introduced in budget 2017 that will deliver on eight more.
In budget 2016, the government committed to investing $5.7 billion over six years to restore critical access to services, ensure the long-term financial security of veterans with disabilities, and honour the service, sacrifice, and achievements of those who served in our military.
Budget 2017 provides for a comprehensive set of measures to recognize the important role of caregivers, help more families, support mental health, and pay for the education and training veterans need to find a job.
That includes the implementation of eight measures totalling $624 million over six years.
Our work continues as we enhance the financial security and wellness elements of the new veterans charter to help veterans and their families transition to post-military life and make choices about what they want to do next, whether it be work, education, or other activities.
There is no doubt that our government has worked hard to provide veterans and their families with the care and support they need, and to commemorate those who served, all in line with the principles laid out in the Veterans Bill of Rights. Applying to all former members of the military and family members, the bill of rights includes the principles of dignity, respect, and fairness, because this government knows it is due to their contributions and sacrifices that we are all here today.
As I can confirm, family should always be a part of the discussion, because when a man or woman serves, or when their sons are serving, as mine are, the entire family serves along with them.
While the new veterans charter, introduced in 2006, received all-party support, what emerged over the years was a patchwork system of policies and benefits, which made it more complicated for veterans to get the support they needed when they needed it. This was a consistent message from the veteran community, and something the department has gone to great lengths to address. For over a year, through a service delivery review, they reviewed and assessed how programs and services are delivered to veterans and their families.
We now have a plan to provide services that are faster, more flexible, and more responsive by focusing more on veterans when they contact the department for the first time and by providing a personalized response that meets all of the veteran's needs.
Regardless of whether veterans call, visit an office in person, go online, or send a request by mail, Veterans Affairs Canada will ensure that they get the same information and have the same positive service experience.
This type of change does not happen overnight, but we have an action plan in place. It is posted on our website. It outlines each recommendation and when it will be completed.
The department has already started making some of the important changes that will make a difference now. For example, it has simplified the approvals process for certain disability claims, like PTSD and hearing loss, and has reduced the burden on veterans. This has resulted in 27% more decisions being completed in the last fiscal year compared to the year before. It is a small step, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
One of our biggest endeavours so far has been the guided support pilot project. Launched in a few cities, a group of veterans were identified to receive one-on-one assistance in applying for benefits and services to ensure that they are getting the most out of what the department has to offer. The pilot project received tremendous feedback and delivers on some of the recommendations for in-person service delivery. It also addresses the larger issue of veterans not always knowing the right questions to ask. The department does the hard work of navigating the system and provides the veterans with the specific information and advice they need. Veterans Affairs is currently looking at the next steps with the project in order to roll it out nationally.
Another recommendation was to bring back the client survey in order to ensure that all veterans and their families had a chance to provide feedback. I am proud to announce, on behalf of the department, that the results of this national survey are in, and it is clear that we are making progress.
Some of the results attest to the department's efforts to improve the long-term financial security and independence of veterans who are sick or injured. To restore critical access to services, Veterans Affairs Canada reopened 10 offices across the country last year, in addition to substantially improving access to front-line staff and case managers.
In this recent survey, 83% of veterans, RCMP members, and family members responded that they felt their case management plans met their needs. That is a significant increase from 2010, when only 24% were satisfied. Additionally, 81% responded that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the support the department provides, and many felt that services exceeded their expectations. An overwhelming 94% found that VAC staff treats them with respect. That speaks volumes for the progress the department is making, indicating that it is headed in the right direction in respecting, supporting, and treating all veterans fairly.
The issue at the core of the bill comes down to how we treat veterans and their families in their dealings with Veterans Affairs Canada by calling on the department to treat them with fairness, respect, and dignity, and to recognize the unique experience of veterans and their families. I doubt there is a member in this place who disagrees with the importance of these sentiments.
The challenge presented by the bill is how we define these principles so they are interpreted consistently and not subjectively. These principles exist in the Veterans Bill of Rights, and if they can be strengthened, we should examine doing that. I would like to see the bill make it to committee where members can take a much closer look at these principles and how Veterans Affairs can and should apply them.
When it comes to our Canadian Armed Forces members, our veterans, and their families, we will always strive for excellence and to improve our services and benefits. Indeed, the very reason I decided to run for federal office was that I felt veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members and their families were not being treated as well as they could be. With two sons serving, I know that they, too, one day will be veterans, so I am committed to working hard for them and all military families.
I look forward to working with the member for Barrie—Innisfil to make sure that we do right by our brave men and women in uniform, those who have served, and the families who support them.
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