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.