Thank you, Mr. Chair.
NCVA welcomes this opportunity to speak to this committee this morning on Bill C-59, with particular reference to that portion of the legislation dealing with the new Veterans Charter reform.
I first wish to state that it has become readily apparent over recent months that there have been a number of significant developments positively impacting on the operation of Veterans Affairs Canada and the department's relationship with the veterans community. We would be remiss if we did not commend the minister, Erin O'Toole, and the deputy, Walt Natynczyk, on their proactive engagement in the overall reform of the charter and the enhancement of the administrative culture within VAC.
With specific reference to charter reform, it is fair to say that significant momentum and substantial traction have been developed through the various recommendations brought down by the minister, culminating in the establishment of the current statutory amendments before Parliament, which clearly are the government's attempt to respond to their proposals made by this standing committee, the Veterans Ombudsman, the Veterans Consultation Group, the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group, and our NCVA organizations.
Unfortunately, many of the minister's announcements and proposed legislative amendments reflect, in our judgment, half measures and are clearly not fully responsive to the comprehensive recommendations made by this committee and the aforementioned multiple advisory groups. After years, however, of what I have described as unacceptable inertia within VAC, there are indeed solid indications that the first phase of positive, incremental change is taking place. It remains our mandate, and I might respectfully suggest the responsibility of this committee and veteran stakeholders, to maintain pressure on the government to complete this vital initiative in addressing the outstanding inequities which still remain in the charter.
Mr. Chair, I would now like to make a number of general comments on the bill and the impact it will have on the new Veterans Charter.
First, the clear focus on seriously disabled veterans is commendable as it has consistently been the position of NCVA that the highest priority of the veterans community and the government must be seriously injured veterans.
Second, it is self-evident upon a review of the substantive provisions of the statutory amendments that the devil will be in the details as there are a number of references in the legislation to regulations and policy guidelines that have yet to be formulated to support the general provisions of the act. It is my opinion that until these regulations are finalized, it will not be possible to evaluate the precise eligibility criteria for the newly proposed major benefits and the “factors to be considered”, which are often mentioned in the bill, in the administration of the new law. It will be incumbent on veteran stakeholders and indeed this standing committee to monitor closely the draft regulations and policy guidelines to ensure that the substantive provisions of the act are not diluted or unduly restricted.
Third, it is also readily apparent that budgetary constraints still exist. It is our opinion, upon a review of the minister's announcements and the statutory amendments, that the proposals have been structured to fit into the budgetary envelope, resulting in proposed benefits that are targeted to specific cohort veterans rather than the veteran population at large. Unfortunately, in our view, the government fixation with balancing the budget in this election year remains a restraint on the complete new Veterans Charter reform at this time.
Fourth, as I stated to the minister through recent correspondence and through my presentation to the veterans summit, much more needs to be done to rectify the voids that have been readily identified in the charter. The present state of development cannot be considered a total fait accompli, but merely a significant first stage of remedial legislation.
Mr. Chair, I know we're under certain time constraints and my brief is fairly lengthy. I've made it available to members of the committee, but I'd like to highlight some of my concerns with regard to the bill and those areas where there are still gaps and inequities in the charter which have yet to be addressed in this legislation.
First, the earnings loss benefit must be elevated from 75% of former military income to 100% in accordance with the long-standing and consistent recommendations of the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group, the Veterans Consultation Group, and NCVA—or at least to 90%, as proposed by my friend, the Veterans Ombudsman. The current reduction of 25% in income is unacceptable, particularly given that this loss of essential revenue is imposed when veterans and their families face a period of rehabilitation as they attempt to re-establish themselves in Canadian society.
This is particularly material to those who are permanently incapacitated. In this regard, the career probable-earnings approach identified by this committee should be implemented to ensure the true impact of the projected career income loss is recognized. This proposal can be implemented by further reform of the PIA or the PIAS, or alternatively by a separate evaluation based on the mechanisms used by the Canadian civil courts to ascertain future loss of income for severely injured plaintiffs
Second, the SISIP long-term disability policy needs to be eliminated from veterans legislation and be applied only to non-service related disability.
Beyond the unnecessary duplication of the programs—SISIP and ELB—the compensation of veterans and their dependants should not be a function of the insurance industry, whose mandate in many situations is to minimize exposure of insurers' policies when applied to injured or disabled individuals. I speak more of that in the paper, and I'll leave that to your reading at a separate time.
Third, disability awards commensurate with civil court general damages should be facilitated by VAC.
It is to be noted that in lieu of implementing this long-standing recommendation, the minister has opted to propose a new critical injury benefit in the amount of $70,000. This CIB is limited to the specific circumstances of a transitionally incapacitated veteran and to high-end disability award recipients. It is noteworthy in this regard that the CIB is fraught with definitional issues as to who is eligible for this benefit and what factors are to be considered by adjudicators in determining the scope and extent of this new provision. Although we support the establishment of the innovative CIB in recognition of the plight that seriously disabled veterans confront, the choice of VAC to compensate only this particular class of veterans, as opposed to incrementally increasing all pensions in the disability award system, is of concern. I might add that this recommendation has been consistently brought forward over the last six or seven years not only by this committee, but by all of the other advisory groups that have looked at the charter.
Fourth, improved access to permanent impairment allowance and entitlement to higher-grade levels of the allowance needs further evaluation. It will be recalled that the Veterans Ombudsman, Mr. Parent, in his empirical study of the charter identified that 50% of seriously disabled veterans were not receiving the PIA, and consequently the PIAS, and that 90% of these veterans receiving the award were only obtaining grade three, the lowest grade. The minister's proposal to widen the regulatory definition of PIA eligibility is commendable, but once again does not fully satisfy all aspects of the reform of this important allowance. This is particularly so for those seriously disabled veterans who fail to satisfy the criteria for PIA, but it is also of great significance when one considers that the amount of the PIA is a major element of the new retirement income security benefit, as was pointed out by Mr. Butler this morning.
We continue to strongly feel that our proposal to the standing committee in this regard is the best approach to improving this access to PIA. That is, once a veteran is deemed to be permanently incapacitated, the disability award received by such a veteran should be the major determinant in assessing his or her grade level of PIA. If you're over 78% disability award, you should be entitled to a grade one PIA. Between 48% and 78%, you should be at grade two. It's simple, straightforward, and triggered by the disability award.
Fifth, the family caregiver relief benefit requires further re-evaluation as it fails to comprehensively provide adequate financial support for the families of seriously disabled veterans where significant needs of attendants must be provided by a caregiver. This benefit, as brought forward by the minister, is commendable insofar as it goes, as a targeted support to allow caregivers appropriate respite or relief, but in my judgment, it represents only one element of the overall concerns confronting the caregivers of seriously disabled veterans in need of attendants. Such families are also facing, in many cases, a significant diminishment in income due to the fact that the caregiver spouse has been forced to give up his or her employment, and when coupled with the veteran's 25% loss of income, through SISIP or ELB, it often results in a financial crisis in the overall family budget.
I'll just be a couple of minutes, Mr. Chair. Thank you.