Interventions in Committee
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View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Thank you, Mr. Chair, fellow parliamentarians and all of you here today, ladies and gentlemen.
I am pleased to appear before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs to present the budgetary estimates for my department, Veterans Affairs Canada, for the last fiscal year and the upcoming one.
But before I get into the numbers, I would first like to thank the members of the committee for their work on Bill C-55. Thanks to your understanding and compassion, we have been able to move quickly towards the passage of this meaningful bill in the House of Commons. I thank you and Canada's veterans thank you.
Allow me to digress for a moment. We wanted to fast-track this bill through the Senate. But it seems that the Liberal senators would not let that happen, I have just learned. I am not sure whether you can intervene to help us at all, but we all know how important it is that we vote on the bill as soon as possible. There is talk of a vote of non-confidence in the government on Friday. At least we will have done everything we could on our end.
Once the bill known as the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act has received royal assent, it will give our most seriously injured soldiers broader access to better financial support as they transition to civilian life. We can all agree that these changes are a step in the right direction.
As Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent told the committee on March 1, this bill is a small but important step that should not be delayed to try to improve it at this stage. That work will continue as we go forward.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Mr. Chair, I would just like to follow up on what I said by adding one thing that was brought to my attention. We wanted to fast-track the bill to proceed directly to second reading. And we needed unanimous consent to do that, but the Liberal senators would not agree. That has delayed the process somewhat.
Just how much of an impact will that delay have on whether or not the bill is passed? I cannot say. That being said, if my information is incorrect, I would happily withdraw my remarks at any point, of course.
That work will continue as—
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Mr. Chair, as far as these budget numbers go, it is important to understand that every action and decision made at the Department of Veterans Affairs is geared toward improving services and benefits for Canada's most deserving citizens.
The changing demographic profile of Canada's veterans, their changing needs and requirements, and our involvement in Afghanistan have all resulted in more modern-day veterans than we anticipated applying for and receiving benefits under the New Veterans Charter. We are also seeing situations where new medical conditions arise at a later date or where additional difficulties affect veterans. As a result, veterans who already receive a benefit are coming back to us for additional help.
I also want to point out that our efforts over the past year to improve the process of awarding disability benefits have contributed to this increased spending. As of the end of February 2011, the number of disability claims processed increased by 15% this year over last year. As a result, we've put $72 million more in the hands of Canada's veterans.
We have also seen an increase in the uptake of the rehabilitation and career transition programs. The year after the New Veterans Charter was introduced, there were just over 1,100 veterans taking advantage of these programs. This year, there were over 3,800, and we are forecasting over 4,600 next year. That's a 22% increase. It is important to keep in mind that Canada's veterans and their families are the main beneficiaries of this spending growth.
Mr. Chair, you will also notice that we asked for an additional $9.4 million to support the veterans independence program. This reflects the fact that Canada's veterans are still in good health. Our traditional war service veterans are living longer and healthier lives, so they are able to remain in their homes with the help of grounds keeping and housekeeping services. This means fewer of them are moving to long-term care facilities. Again, this is another indication that our programs are effective and being well-used by veterans.
In relation to the spending on the Agent Orange program, I made an announcement in Fredericton back in December that the program would be extended. Our government committed additional funding, some of which is reflected in the numbers you see for both this year and next year. Essentially, that allowed us to change the program's criteria. First, we removed a restriction on eligibility. That allowed more widows to apply for the ex-gratia payment. Second, we changed the date in terms of getting a diagnosis. Since the announcement, we have contacted nearly 1,300 individuals to obtain consent to review their file, and we actually have received a number of new applications as well. The bottom line is that as of March 11, 2011, we have approved payments for over 300 individuals.
Once again, these increases speak to a desire to improve the quality of life for Canada's veterans and their families. They also underline some of the fundamental changes made to how we conduct business at the department these days. We are making real progress in reducing the complexity of the processes and programs, overhauling service delivery, strengthening partnerships with the Department of National Defence and others, sustaining the New Veterans Charter, and adapting the department to the changing demographics of our veterans.
As I mentioned, productivity at Veterans Affairs is up by about 15%. We have increased our team of adjudicators, improved our business processes and introduced better monitoring. We are doing a better job of communicating with veterans, giving clearer direction as to the type of information we need in order to be able to move forward with an application.
We have also made certain investments in technology. These are minor investments for the moment, and of course we have to quicken our pace. We will do more on this front.
I must mention other important progress: between January 2010 and January 2011, we reduced the number of disability claims waiting to be adjudicated by 36%. We are processing disability applications faster. As of early this month, March 8, 78% of first applications were completed within 16 weeks. The result, of course, impacts our budget for the upcoming year.
For 2011-2012, we project spending $3.5 billion, an increase of $109.1 million in comparison to the previous main estimates, or 3.2% from the previous year. I wish to point out that expenses related to Bill C-55 will not be added to the budget as long as the law has not been enacted, but we have provided for the costs related to the program. Some projects have already been approved and there are several others to come.
And finally, Mr. Chair, I don't want to leave you with the impression that all we do is spend money at Veterans Affairs Canada. We are very cognizant of the tight fiscal environment in which our country finds itself. There are some decreases in next year's anticipated spending amounting to $85 million. This is due to a decrease in the forecasted number of War Service Veterans who will receive benefits from the department. As such, some program spending has been adjusted downward.
As well, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board has been established as a separate entity under the Financial Administration Act, which means that the expenditure will no longer appear in the department's spending. These estimates represent an important commitment by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Government of Canada to invest significantly in the health and well-being of Canada's veterans and their families.
I have enjoyed travelling across the country these last few months and talking with our veterans and telling them about the service improvements taking place in their name. Their feedback and yours have been invaluable, as has been the advice from their advocates. I of course plan to continue that dialogue to ensure all of our programs and services are continuously adapted and adjusted to better fit the evolving needs of both our traditional and modern-day veterans and their families.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Thank you for your comments and questions.
With regard to our veterans who are returning from Afghanistan, we have put in place a special team to process their files more quickly. For instance, decisions on rehabilitation programs are handed down within a two-week time frame. As for benefits they may obtain under the department's various programs, be it the disability benefit or others, we have also accelerated the process and we can respond to their applications within 16 weeks. People may wonder why it takes 16 weeks when it should be done within three or four. There are also all sorts of reasons for that. Previously the turnaround time was 24 weeks, it is now 16, and we are continuing to improve the process. However, in order to make a decision we need all of the relevant information, the medical information in particular. It is very important that our employees have all of the documents in hand so as to be able to make a decision. Often, some of the information comes from the Department of National Defence, in particular the files and other documents, and all of this takes time.
Allow me to tell you that we are really making progress, making improvements. In the coming days our frontline employees will have the power to make decisions. And so they will no longer have to refer the case to levels above them, which led to delay after delay. The whole process within the department is evolving in order to meet our veterans' needs more quickly.
In addition, I will not deny that our department has aged as our veterans have, veterans of the Second World War, the Korean War and our various peace missions. And then our modern- day veterans appeared. We were not prepared from this sudden culture change, and the change in the needs of our modern-day veterans. These are completely different needs, as compared to those of our older veterans. For instance, we were not prepared to process their files using the Internet, and we are still not able to do so. This is one of the changes we are making. We will see what answers tomorrow's budget will contain in this regard. We are truly undergoing a period of major change and we are taking that reality into account, and the needs of our military people.
I also want to point out that we are processing our modern-day veterans' files in light of the New Veterans Charter approved in 2005. This should be an evolving charter but in reality there were no changes made over four or four and half years. Why was this the case? The situation was not the same. When our modern-day veterans come back injured from Afghanistan, for instance after having had a leg amputated, they are still members of the armed forces and they remain there during two or three years on full salary. It is only after that period that they deal with us and that they really come under Veterans Affairs Canada. All of this reality caught up with us quickly over the past 18 months, and this has meant that we must now pick up our pace. This is what we are doing at this time. Bill C-55 has not yet been passed. For that reason, we will not be able to give our modern-day veterans all of the benefits we want to give them. All of the flaws that need to be corrected will not be as long as the bill has not become law. Moreover, there will be a six-month lag before the regulations come into effect.
I tried to give you some specific details to reply to your comments.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
These injuries, be they physical or psychological, are covered by our department. Both types of injuries are treated and veterans may benefit, for instance, from the lump sum payment, and the various services, etc. The number of clinics has doubled over the past two years. It went from 5 to 10. These are specialized clinics throughout the country that serve our veterans. Our approach has in fact led to certain results which I am going to set out for you. Veteran Affairs Canada comes to the assistance of 13,700 veterans who are suffering from mental health problems, and their families, and close to 3,500 of these veterans have been treated in our specialized clinics.
Of course, we are constantly looking for ways to better help our people. During the Second World War this illness probably existed as well, but we did not have a name for it. Now we call it operational post-traumatic stress syndrome. Science is always progressing and that is something we take into account within our department.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Allow me to provide you with some additional clarification on this.
Indeed, the New Veterans Charter was adopted in 2005 unanimously by the House of Commons. I think that everyone was acting in good faith and wanted to help our veterans.
We did say that this was a living charter. Afterwards, the problems with it began to emerge clearly. We met some of our military people who had come back injured, and some of them had mental health problems or post-traumatic stress syndrome and they had received lump sum payments, some of which were as much as $276,000. Some of them told us that they had wasted their money and that they were not in a position to manage it well.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
That is why we took those aspects into consideration. We even did a study to see what people's satisfaction level was. Over 69% of people said they were happy with the lump sum payment. But 31% of people were unhappy. So we really started wondering and looking into why those people were unhappy. That is when we realized that many of them had mental health issues. That was one side of the problem, but there were others too.
The other problem we discovered was that people who were in the army, had a low salary, came back with an injury and wanted to be in a rehabilitation program would in fact receive 75% of their salary. But 75% of a low salary means an even lower salary. That was something that had to be corrected quickly, because some of those people had families to provide for. The rehabilitation program is the foundation for the new charter, whose purpose is not to keep 20-, 30- or 40-year-old injured soldiers waiting when they come back home. These soldiers have to be given the chance to rehabilitate themselves and return to civilian life. Their disabilities have to be taken into account to make sure that they can find another job, continue to thrive and be active members of society.
Our first change concerns the minimum amount that a person who comes back injured can receive while in rehabilitation, that is to say a minimum amount of $40,000. If 75% of the salary is higher than $40,000, the person will certainly be entitled to that amount. The minimum they can receive is $40,000.
The second change has to do with the permanent monthly allowance, which is similar to the old pension system. The person would receive this amount every month for life for their disability. The amount goes from $536 to $1,609. The amounts have been indexed over the past few weeks, but I am providing you with the amounts that I had. The problem we were dealing with was that practically no one was eligible for that amount. Why? Because there was an error in the old charter. It wasn't taking into account injuries that had occurred before the new charter was in place. So we are going to correct the error in the legislation. As a result, 3,500 people will be eligible for this monthly amount for life. In addition to this amount, those who cannot return to work because they have experienced serious injuries will receive $1,000 more a month. If we add all these amounts, the person who cannot return to work because of serious injuries will earn $58,000 for life. And the lump sum payment is in addition to that amount.
I would like to remind the hon. member that, when you are in the army and come back physically injured, you receive a sum of up to $250,000 from the military and a second sum of up to $276,000 from us.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Thank you for your questions, Mr. Stoffer. I will ask our officials to shed some light on this matter as well.
I have never ever asked that the amounts we were giving our veterans be lowered in order to save money. Let me ask our officials: have you heard anything like that from me?
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
In terms of the $2 billion—which is not, of course, in the budget, because the sum has not been approved yet by the House of Commons—the amount will be included if it is approved through a vote.
We are talking about $200 million over five years. In the Minister of Finance's accounting, since he has to keep track of the total costs, there is a mention of the $2 billion in the budget. That's what we should hear announced tomorrow.
You have probably also noticed that we want to do more to help our veterans. As a result, we are going to introduce a new measure for veterans who want to return to civilian life or who can no longer be in the military because of injuries. This measure will allow them to offer their services in the construction sector.
That's being done in the United States, and a number of our soldiers have professional skills that could be used in construction. We will try to find a way to help them to work in this sector and, of course, we will consider other options.
As to the homeless situation, I went to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal where we have established pilot projects. I think everyone was able to see that veterans who are homeless can usually be eligible for assistance from us.
However, the hard part is for us to find them. Once we find them, we will definitely examine their files and assess the services they can receive from us. I think we can easily come to the conclusion that a homeless person is someone with difficulties in life. So our department assesses the files.
I even had the opportunity to have dinner with a homeless person who told me his life story and how his black-out happened. This man decided one day to leave the army for all kinds of reasons and ended up on the streets. He told me that, while he was in the army—you will perhaps find this story interesting—he served as a model prisoner, which had an impact on his life later, after he left the military. One day, he was working with his hands, as he was a good carpenter, and his fingers came into contact with the saw. The blood spurted on his face and everything went black.
No one wanted to look after him, and his family abandoned him. So he went into the bush near Calgary. He told me he lived in a tent for two and a half years and he cried every day. He said he cried all the time.
One day, someone from our department found him and was able to take care of him. He has now recovered and is getting all the services from our department.
It was really remarkable hearing this story, which helped me to see this man's journey. We often wonder about PTSD and we don't think it can happen just like that. In his case, it was the accident that triggered it.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
I would like to thank the hon. member.
You are right to mention that. The fact that there are not enough veterans working for our department is another area that has been criticized. Having veterans among our employees in all sectors is an asset, since they truly understand the culture of the military and of our Canadian Forces. We have started the process of hiring more veterans, and we have just appointed two veterans to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. We have also hired Ms. Jaeger, a veteran—I don't have her exact former rank—...
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
She is now with our department. So you can see that we are really making changes that are beneficial for our department and our veterans. With these changes, our culture will also adapt to this reality.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
Until this year, we had a program for restoring cenotaphs. For a few months now, there has been a program for building new cenotaphs in honour of our veterans from various wars and our modern-day veterans, of course. This program gets $5 million, or $1 million per year over five years. That allows us to allocate up to $50,000—the maximum we can grant—for building new monuments in honour of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives to protect our country and our values.
View Jean-Pierre Blackburn Profile
First, if I may, I would like to say one thing about our program for the new cenotaphs.
I have just signed off on some of these applications over the past few weeks. One of our members, Dean Del Mastro, has recently announced the establishment of a wall of honour in Peterborough. The wall includes the names of 11,000 soldiers, sailors, air force personnel and merchant mariners from the area, all who came forward to serve in the two world wars and the Korean War. That's a concrete example. We gave them $50,000 and their MP was able to make the announcement.
Sir, in terms of the veterans independence program, I'll be honest with you. We have received many requests to extend it. We have also received some criticism.
I am currently looking into what we should do with the program, since people appreciate it. For example, this program allows them to get funding for snow removal, home maintenance, cleaning or mowing the lawn.
The amounts per capita are not huge, but they are really appreciated. This money allows people to stay in their own homes longer rather than moving to a seniors residence.
We extended the program in 2008. We have invested $282 million over three years in the VIP. As a result, more survivors and more widows were able to receive the help they needed to continue living independently at home.
Just recently, we have also told them that we are offering direct deposit for those...
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