Evidence of meeting #23 for Veterans Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was programs.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Guy Parent  Veterans Ombudsman, Chief Warrant Officer (Retired), Office of the Veterans Ombudsman
  • Keith Hillier  Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Gary Walbourne  Director General, Operations, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman
  • Raymond Lalonde  Director, National Centre for Operational Stress Injuries, Ste. Anne's Hospital, Department of Veterans Affairs

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

We'll begin our continued review of the delivery of front-line health and well-being services for Canadian veterans.

I am pleased to welcome the veterans ombudsman, Mr. Parent, and Mr. Walbourne, director general at the ombudsman's office. Good to have you here. Also from the department we have Mr. Hillier, an assistant deputy minister, and Mr. Lalonde, a director. Good to see you again.

Before we get into your presentation and questions and answers, we have a motion to deal with. I'll ask the mover of the motion if she wants to move it at this time. Does everybody have a copy? It's being sent around now? Okay.

Go ahead.

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I move that, in the opinion of the committee, Rob Anders, MP for Calgary West, be removed from veterans affairs committee.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you, Ms. Mathyssen.

I'm prepared to rule on this because I looked at it before we started. In my opinion, the motion is out of order. The reason it is out of order is that, according to the interpretation of the House rules and Standing Orders, only the House itself has the method and means to deal with the membership of committees. Committees do not have the right to change membership. That's within the purview of the House.

So this motion is out of order.

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Chair, is it possible to get a written version of your ruling?

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

I'll provide an explanation, certainly. Okay?

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ON

Good. Thank you.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Are we through with that for now, then?

As I said, I'm pleased to have our ombudsman and staff here today. We know that a lot of work goes on within your shop, and we appreciate all that you do in looking at issues of interest to veterans. So we look forward to hearing from you today.

The routine is that we'll hear your opening comments, and then we'll allot a little time for Mr. Hillier to make a brief opening statement. Then we'll go around to the various members of the committee for questions and answers.

So, welcome.

March 8th, 2012 / 3:30 p.m.

Guy Parent Veterans Ombudsman, Chief Warrant Officer (Retired), Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I'd like to first start by introducing my director general of operations, Gary Walbourne, who of course is here to answer all the hard questions.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to appear before you and to contribute to the great work this committee does for our veterans and their families.

I have been following with interest the activities of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and the testimonies offered by a variety of witnesses who talked about a wide range of issues.

For my part, I would like to focus my presentation today on the present-day challenges and barriers to the delivery of front line services faced by our veterans and their families.

As the veterans ombudsman, I represent upwards of 800,000 Canadian Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police veterans and their families. My team is dedicated to ensuring that these veterans, including the 216,000 who are clients of Veterans Affairs Canada, are treated fairly in accordance with the Veterans Bill of Rights.

I would like to start by offering our interpretation of “fairness”, which we see as both a value and a measurable outcome. We measure fairness according to three criteria:

Adequacy: are the right programs and services in place to meet the needs?

Sufficiency: are the right programs sufficiently resourced?

Accessibility: are eligibility criteria creating unfair barriers, and can services and benefits be accessed quickly and easily?

Let us look at some challenges and barriers through that lens of “fairness”.

Budget reductions may have an impact on the sufficiency of programs delivered to veterans. Since October 2011, I have been publicly requesting that Veterans Affairs Canada be exempt from the government's budget reduction plan. This would be in line with the actions taken in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

Payments made to veterans or their family members are not handouts or welfare benefits but remittance of a debt incurred by the Government of Canada, which agreed to compensate citizens who have chosen the military or federal police service as a career. At the very least, we must ensure that any cost-cutting activity does not affect the quantity and quality of services received by our veterans. There must be a guarantee that sufficient resources, both human and monetary, will be there to support programs.

We must ensure that any cost-cutting activity does not affect the quantity and quality of services received by our veterans. There must be a guarantee that sufficient resources, both human and monetary, will be there to support programs.

If economies can be realized to increase efficiencies in the process, any available funds should be redirected to areas that are underfunded, such as the funeral and burial expense program.

Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence need to be better prepared for the future. We anticipate that missions will likely lead to an increased number of injured veterans because of the multiplicity of tours and more complexity in case management due to a higher number of psychological injuries. The cost of dealing with the impact of the mission on deployed personnel, in terms of the rehabilitation and care of the injured, should be an essential part of up-front mission planning and should be a joint effort between the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada.

The transition from military service to the civilian community brings up many issues related to the adequacy and accessibility of programs. Many of the witnesses you have heard from in the last few months have indicated that some veterans are experiencing difficulties in transitioning from a close-knit, interdependent military culture to an open, independent civilian community.

I believe it's not what these veterans are facing but rather what they are leaving behind that is the greatest challenge. They lose an identity and a sense of belonging. As the release interview is not mandatory, only those veterans who know they will require help post-release generally are interested in doing one.

If a Canadian Forces or RCMP member suffers service-related injuries that manifest themselves after release, the key documents required to access VAC benefits will be proof of service and medical records. These essential documents are readily available at the point of release, but are subsequently transferred to the Library and Archives of Canada. A mandatory release interview for all, including reservists, where releasing members agree to have service records and health records transferred to a VAC database, as well as the issuing of an ID card reflecting the veteran's file number, would ensure prompt access to benefits in the future. Furthermore, if such a card is subject to periodic renewal, it would provide the basis of a tracking system, whereby all veterans can be reached, including reservists.

In one of the previous hearings, it was mentioned that financial security is an important determinant of health. One challenge some reservists face is that in contrast to the regular force veteran, they are not entitled to the $40,000 earnings loss benefit, as introduced by the improvements to the new charter. So if two privates, one a reservist and the other a regular force member, working alongside each other are injured in the line of duty and are permanently incapacitated, the regular force member will be guaranteed an income of $40,000; the reservist will only be guaranteed an income of $24,000. This is in conflict with the fact that the impact identified in the regulations governing changes to the new Veterans Charter clearly indicated that the absolute minimum salary for an individual to sustain a decent living while undergoing a vocational rehabilitation program is indeed $40,000.

Issues and gaps in the delivery of health care services also relate to the adequacy of programs. The highest number of complaints received by the ombudsman's office relate to health care. These complaints cover a wide range of issues, including reimbursement of travel expenses, limitations on treatment protocols, and the cumbersome approval process. One clear gap is that the long-term care program does not include a strategy to incorporate the Canadian Forces veterans who may require long-term care down the road in priority placement. There seems to be an apparent gap between programs to keep veterans and spouses at home as long as possible and the provisions of a bridging measure, such as subsidized access to assisted living facilities.

Another barrier to adequate health care is the fact that all of the operational stress injury clinics that were put in place do not cater to veterans who are in crisis; veterans must be stabilized and free of addiction before gaining access to their own clinics. In a system where programs are based on needs, this is hardly fair.

The complexity currently built into the program's criteria and processes creates an overarching barrier to program accessibility. Over the years, veterans have been categorized by where, when, and how they served, which explains why there are 18 veteran client groups used by Veterans Affairs Canada. Since sailors, soldiers, airmen, and airwomen, as well as members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, do not question where and when they must serve, for Veterans Affairs Canada to determine that the level of programs and services provided will be based on the type of service rendered is an injustice of the first order.

Access to benefits should be determined by injuries and illnesses related to service, and should be the same for all veterans, regardless of the nature or the location of their service. Categorization has led to the fact that even within the veterans community there are those who do not consider themselves veterans when compared to our war veterans. My office has chosen to adopt the theme of “one veteran” for the duration of my mandate. We do not provide consideration to veterans based on when and where they served but recognize them based on the fact that they served honourably.

One further challenge, and an added layer of complexity, is that the onus to prove service-related causes for an injury or illness is left to the veteran or his representative, when in fact the custodian of the evidence is the Government of Canada, either Library and Archives Canada or the Department of National Defence. When files are obtained by Veterans Affairs Canada, the information contained within it is reviewed and forms the basis of the decision, but it is not provided to the applicant.

In addition to the challenges I've just highlighted, my office is working on systemic reviews aimed at identifying gaps and challenges in specific areas, such as the review of procedural fairness throughout the benefits delivery system, the application process, accessibility and program delivery of mental health services, long-term care strategies, and the programs available to families.

In closing, I would encourage members to support the exemption of Veterans Affairs Canada from the government's budget reduction measures. In the interest of fairness for our veterans and their families, I would ask that the committee work towards ensuring that any budget exercise does not affect the quality and the quantity of benefits available to our veterans, and that they remain sufficiently funded, both in terms of finance and human resources.

Further, I would ask the committee's members to address the unfair issue of differential treatment of reservists under the provisions of the Earnings Loss Benefit. I firmly believe that those who sustain similar illnesses or injuries while serving their country should have access to the same benefits, regardless of the nature of their service and where and when they served. It's a matter of fairness and I ask for the committee's support in this matter.

Finally, I would humbly suggest that the committee consider the three pillars of fairness as they continue their work of the committee. Are the right programs and services in place to meet the needs? Are the right programs sufficiently resourced? Are our eligibility criteria creating unfair barriers, and can service and benefits be accessed quickly and easily?

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you very much, Mr. Parent. I appreciate that.

Now we'll go to Mr. Hillier for a few brief comments.

It's good to see you again.

3:40 p.m.

Keith Hillier Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members, for the opportunity to meet here today.

I'd like to introduce Mr. Raymond Lalonde, who's my director general responsible for our network of operational stress injury clinics across Canada.

Over the past few months you have heard substantial testimony from qualified, credible expert witnesses who spoke passionately on the subject of Canadian Forces members transitioning to civilian life. My goal today is not to repeat the information already presented but rather to summarize some key points and to address any outstanding questions you may have.

Veterans Affairs Canada is fundamentally changing the way we do business. Our vision is to become equipped to serve veterans and their families better, faster, and in more convenient and modern ways.

In fact, the Minister of Veterans Affairs outlined quite a few details of the more recent service improvements when he presented the main estimates to the committee a few days ago.

We've been strengthening our relationships with shareholders, working collaboratively in gathering intelligence from our veterans, partners, and advocates, and the department is responding to this information. We are on the right track for modernizing our services and our benefits.

Certainly, there is a lot of work left to be done. It is important to remember that improvements take time, but progress has been and will be steady.

We work in collaboration with the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman. An example of this collaboration is the Benefits Browser, which was first developed by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, has since been adopted by the department, and is now available for use across our offices.

An example of this collaboration is the Benefits Browser which was first developed by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman and has since been adopted by the department. It is now available for use in all our offices across the country.

The benefits browser quickly displays and sorts information, thereby improving the capacity of our front-line staff to respond faster and provide veterans with the relevant information they need.

We are developing a second tool for use by Canadian Forces members, veterans, and their families.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Those are my opening remarks.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Greg Kerr

Thank you very much.

Of course, questions can go anywhere once they leave this chair and go elsewhere, so everybody should be ready.

We go to Monsieur Genest for five minutes.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Réjean Genest Shefford, QC

Mr. Parent, it seems to me that there is a lack of fairness in how veterans are treated. We see that, depending on whether they served in the regular forces or as reservists, they are not treated the same way. Whether they served in war time or on peace missions, they are treated differently. I noted that there are 18 different categories, but you are only dealing with one.

As for those categories, what recommendations would you make to the government in the spirit of fairness, regardless of whether the person is an officer or an ordinary soldier, or where the person served? What recommendations would you make directly to the government or to the members for legislation to resolve this situation?

3:45 p.m.

Veterans Ombudsman, Chief Warrant Officer (Retired), Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

Guy Parent

That's a very good question. That's exactly why I chose the theme "One Veteran" for the duration of my mandate.

In fact, over the years, we have created these different groups because the programs have been developed directly following missions, deployments and wars. After almost every conflict, we reinvented a suite of programs that applied to certain groups of veterans. That has developed over the years so that we now have several veterans groups created mainly based on the mission the veterans took part in.

I would recommend to the government and to Veterans Affairs Canada that they not create veterans categories any longer, but instead have one single category. I would also recommend that they acknowledge that all veterans—either of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or of the Canadian Forces—must be treated the same way if they sustain the same injury or the same illness. I think that's what is important.

We have a table that shows a comparative study of the programs provided by various countries. I could certainly send it to the committee later. In the United States, the benefits programs recognize two types of veteran. The British armed forces have only one group of clients to serve. Australia has four. So, Canada is really outside the range.

Furthermore, it concerned me to see that, a few months ago now, the Department of National Defence had developed a series of programs that people can enrol in, as long as they had served in Afghanistan. We are continuing to create programs that target only certain missions.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Réjean Genest Shefford, QC

What also seems to be emerging is that the majority of the complaints that your office receives has to do with health care.

What is it that isn't working with respect to the health care provided by the government to veterans or serving members? How is it that there are so many health care-related complaints?

3:45 p.m.

Veterans Ombudsman, Chief Warrant Officer (Retired), Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

Guy Parent

That's another good question.

I would say that, of all the programs for veterans, it's probably the most complicated. It contains a lot of sub-programs and benefits related to health care, but others that are not necessarily related to heath care itself. So it's very complicated. You know, people have access to 14 programs, which deal as much with medication as with in-home treatments and special treatments. It's complicated. It's certainly the reason why the majority of complaints has to do with health care.

Most of the complaints are resolved with the department's cooperation. Our basic principle is to try to resolve the cases as simply as possible.