Mr. Speaker, I am so pleased to rise today to speak to issues concerning our Canadian Armed Forces veterans in response to the opposition supply day motion put forward by my colleague, the member for Courtenay—Alberni.
I enjoy serving with him on the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. I appreciate the opportunities we have to collaborate on ways that have the potential to see our veterans better served, if the government were to implement our recommendations.
The motion before us states:
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should automatically carry forward all annual lapsed spending at the Department of Veterans Affairs to the next fiscal year, for the sole purpose of improving services for Canadian veterans, until the Department meets or exceeds its 24 self-identified service standards.
Today, in response to the motion, we have heard from the Liberals and they tell us that lapsed funding does not result in anyone receiving less than they should. They have said that it is just how the government keeps its books. They have said that nothing nefarious is going on. The Liberals have explained that most spending at Veterans Affairs is statutory and that the government needs to be prepared to cover the cost of these benefits, whether 10 or 10,000 eligible veterans make a claim.
The Liberals have advised us that each year the spending estimates for Veterans Affairs are put before the House, based predominantly on those very same statutory requirements. In other words, the funding that has lapsed will be in the spending estimates this year and the year after that and the year after that.
The Liberals are saying that the motion is a moot point. Actually, for the most part, they are right. However, I know they hope veterans will forget that when in opposition, the Liberals sung a very different tune.
It is true that the funding for Veterans Affairs is regulated by statute. It seems the Minister of Veterans Affairs is aware of this fact now. The other day, he was explaining to Global News that he was statutorily obligated to provide programs and services owed to veterans, so any lapsed funding would not affect services to veterans. A Veterans Affairs spokesperson agreed with the minister and said that lapsed funding did not result in anyone receiving less than they should, that it was simply an administrative process.
Services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, under the Liberals, is demand driven, just as it was during the previous Conservative government. The hypocrisy here is that when the same thing happened in the past, the Liberals falsely claimed that the then government was stealing from veterans. Now when they find themselves in government and are faced with the exact same situation, the Liberals say that they are not stealing, that they are following an administrative process.
I am not going to come to the House today and claim that lapsed funding in the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Liberal government is somehow stealing from veterans, because it is not and it never was. However, I will ask the minister, now that he and the Liberal government are aware of how Veterans Affairs budgets work, if they will apologize for accusing my former colleagues of thievery? Will they apologize to Canadians for completely misrepresenting in the past how this Veterans Affairs budget works? Will they apologize to veterans for the stress they caused them by suggesting the former government was taking money from their benefits, when they knew it was not true?
The department makes estimates for what it expects to spend and in the event that all the money is not spent, it lapses. The way the department is set up, it is required to have enough money for the demands of our veterans, each and every year. This motion by the member for Courtenay—Alberni is somewhat moot. However, there are many areas of concern where my colleague and I are of one mind that I believe are the force behind his intent today.
What are the reasons this funding remains there at the end of the budget year? Why does it fail to reach veterans? There are two significant reasons why that happens. One is incredible inefficiencies within the department, an inability when it creates programs to get them through the door and out to the veterans. The other reason is a significant culture of denial. Veterans always have to fight for something they should be able to receive without an increased level in their mental health problems, without an increased level of PTSD and struggling through the transition process and without an increase in the number of veterans who contemplate or actually go through with suicide and homicides because they simply cannot take another problem added on to the problems they are already facing.
For example, the fact that $37 million taxpayer dollars abused by the Prime Minister to fight veterans in court was a blow to the guts, the hearts and the minds of our veterans. When asked why we were fighting certain veteran groups in court, the Prime Minister responded, at the Edmonton town hall, in February 2018, with this statement, “Because they're asking for more than we are able to give.”
The previous Conservative minister of Veterans Affairs had worked with Equitas, firing the government lawyer and instead putting the case in abeyance, with the goodwill to work together to move toward acceptable solutions to improve outcomes for injured veterans, as they were requesting.
The outcomes this motion is trying to achieve are very important. I am very disturbed by the increasing backlog of applications for disability benefits. Despite the $10 billion the minister is always quoting, the backlog is 29,000 and growing.
The government sees itself as succeeding, because it indicates that cases are being processed and moved to VRAB, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, more quickly. How could any government claim this as a success, that basically, initial request from veterans are moving quickly to an appeal board, where once again they have to go through the process for applying and requesting that funding? In most cases, once they make it through that process, it is provided. Why are we putting our veterans through this added difficulty that causes them great angst and only means they are not receiving their funding or their services in a timely manner?
When VAC finally communicates to Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans and their families using veterans-centric plain language and when it ensures all veterans have a clear understanding of every benefit they qualify for upon release and every benefit they may need to access over time, we will be on the road to succeeding to care more effectively and efficiently for our veterans.
One of the biggest challenges to veterans receiving their benefits is an over-complicated chain of command, where upper management does not embrace change and case managers are not empowered to do what is best for veterans as quickly as possible. There does not appear to be a desire to work with DND to create a seamless transition for our veterans if it means a change to the structure or the composition of VAC.
There continues to be a culture that insists VAC must determine if medical release is due to service before VAC will provide benefits, when DND already makes the determination when a member no longer meets universality of service and is released. Yes, of course future decisions by VAC will need to be made as veterans age. However, upon medical release, there is complete clarity already provided by DND on whether they qualify for services from VAC. It is already there at release.
Timely service and peace of mind for an injured veteran should be the determining factors, not protecting the turf of a department. The truth is that the majority of the cohort of case managers the Liberals claim they have put in place, 400 of those 470, were already budgeted for by the previous Conservative government.
At the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, we heard that case managers were not properly trained and up to speed on veterans benefits. They are overworked, stressed and often feeling helplessly caught between veterans in dismay and those up the chain of command. VAC needs to stop operating like an insurance program.
VAC needs to be transparent in what it is actually providing to veterans. Today, we heard one of the members of the Liberal Party talk about the education benefit, $40,000 for someone who has served for six years and $80,000 for someone who has served for 12 years. Unfortunately, that is not a transparent presentation to veterans or Canadians because those funds are a taxable benefit.
Therefore, when veterans think they are going to get $40,000 to go to school, at the end of the year they find out that it is a taxable benefit and they owe the government in taxes. I wonder if the government has come to any decision as to how much of that benefit it hands out is actually clawed back and how much it gets back through taxes from our veterans. It is misleading.
As well, the member across the way said that with the education benefit, veterans would get to go to the school of their choice. I have been approached by many veterans who wanted to take advantage of that program. One of them was actually okayed to go ahead and registered with the institution. The veteran then heard back through the case manager that the people higher up did not think the school qualified. It was devastating.
As well, the member across the way said that the emergency funds were available 24/7. What he is saying is that people can call in 24/7, but he did not tell truthfully how long it took for the department to actually get those funds out the door to a veteran who was in an emergency crisis situation. Our committee should take a look at that.
Under no circumstances should the men and women who have served and have come home physically or mentally injured find themselves fighting for benefits they were told would be there for them and their families when they signed on, willing to die for their country.
The minister has indicated on numerous occasions that the backlog is because veterans are better informed and they have more services to apply for. I hope there is a certain amount of truth to that. However, in actuality what is not being said is that the backlog is going to get even worse, as VAC is facing a significant increase of service members ready to retire now after serving 25 years. The department is not prepared.
It is no secret that there is no clarity for veterans or service and case managers with the rollout fast approaching of the so-called pension for life. The plan provides no new funds. Instead it consolidates and rolls in existing benefits.
In an article in Esprit de Corps Canadian military magazine, dated April 18, Sean Bruyea and Robert Smol, comparing the old Pension Act and the Liberals' new so-called pension for life, stated:
Furthermore, under the same category of non-taxable benefits for pain and suffering, injured veterans will have a choice between a lump-sum payment of up to $360,000 and a monthly “Pension for Life” up to a maximum of $1,150 to compensate for their injuries. There are no additional amounts for spouses or children. The average “Pension for Life” likely will be around $200 per month. For the 60,000 veteran recipients still receiving the Pension Act, they are paid an average of $680 per month plus amounts for spouses and children.
In the announcement of the Liberals' budget for 2018, with the new life-long pension included, the example that was given was of someone who had served the full 25 years and ended up at the last moment having a very horrific injury, including major loss of limbs. That individual qualifies for the maximum amount. There are many of our boots on the ground who get injured and never make it to 25 years. It is misleading in that document.
Another glaring problem is the inability of VAC to administer funds in a timely manner. One example is the emergency relief fund. It takes days, not hours, to get the funds to a veteran in a crisis situation. I am going to mention an organization called “Veterans Emergency Transition Services”, known as VETS Canada. It is operated by veterans for veterans. A non-profit corporation with volunteers across Canada, it provides emergency aid and comfort to veterans who are in crisis and who are at risk of becoming homeless.
If a veteran or someone on their behalf reaches out to VETS Canada, it can have a person at their door very quickly with help. If it gets a call about a homeless veteran, it works that same day to get them off the street. The new VETS Canada drop-in centre is just blocks from Parliament Hill and it is so effective in its mandate that we heard that 65 of its emergency clients went there in its first two months of operation.
The problem at Veterans Affairs is not a lack of money. We all know that the minister says he has $10 billion to spend, because he says that at every opportunity, yet it seems the desire of the government is to get dollars out the door elsewhere, providing taxpayer dollars to colonize overseas countries, to get Canadians to submit to its attestation values, to pay out terrorists and help murderers, rather than focusing on our veterans, elderly and those working hard to join the middle class.
Veterans want to see more veterans as caseworkers so that they can talk to people who understand military service and speak their language. They want transparency when they file a claim, with an honest, accurate estimation provided as to how long it will take. Veterans want to be made aware of available services. For example, I recently returned from a committee trip up north and discovered that 89% of our Canadian Rangers are not aware of their Canadian Armed Forces health care entitlements or their veterans benefits. An excellent recommendation came forward in the north that a VAC service agent simply be included with the existing team at the Service Canada building in Yellowknife.
Understanding that Veteran Affairs services need to start shortly after enlistment with ongoing contact, we need to ensure that when an forces member retires or is released from the Canadian Armed Forces and becomes a veteran, he or she is armed and trained with the clear, concise information that empowers them to access everything they need and deserve as they transition from serving in our military.