Mr. Chair, members of the Committee, I would first like to thank you for your invitation to appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. This is my first appearance before a parliamentary committee and I am pleased to be participating in this discussion with you today.
With me is Colonel (retired) Charlie Cue, Director of the Research and Investigation Section and Special Advisor in my office.
You have invited me here today to discuss the work done by the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman in relation to combat stress and its consequences on the health of veterans and their families.
I would like to start by saying that I salute the work done on this issue by this committee and in fact by several other bodies. I hope that my views will be useful in your discussions.
Before going into the subject in hand, let me share with you how the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman operates under my leadership. We currently provide three main services to the veterans community. We provide information on the various programs and services available to veterans and their families through Veterans Affairs Canada and other groups serving the veterans community. We provide assistance and referrals to veterans who come to us, often as their last resort, after being bounced between organizations or after receiving conflicting advice. We also provide intervention. This can be as simple as an informal mediation between a veteran and a service provider on a single issue, or as complex as a full investigation of a systemic problem culminating in a formal report with recommendations.
To get back to the subject at hand, I would first like to say that I prefer to use the term "operational stress injuries", since it is a broader term than "combat stress". Many veterans who seek assistance from the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman are often dealing with issues relating to operational stress injuries, even if there is another reason for their call. That is why the Office has an interest in this issue.
Here are a couple of examples that represent different issues brought to our office by veterans and their families in relation to their dealings with Veterans Affairs Canada. Both cases show that Veterans Affairs Canada appears to be ill-prepared to deal with veterans in a crisis situation.
In the first case, a veteran was in receipt of psychiatric services from a physician located in Ottawa, although he was a resident of Montreal. Veterans Affairs Canada, recognizing the importance of the patient-physician relationship, agreed to reimburse the travel for this arrangement. However, the physician in question was posted to Trenton, and when the veteran found himself in a crisis situation and requested permission to travel to Trenton to see his physician, Veterans Affairs Canada refused his request. After three months, when the spouse of the veteran contacted Veterans Affairs Canada because the veteran had become suicidal, she was advised to contact 911. As a last resort, she contacted the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, which began negotiating with Veterans Affairs Canada on her behalf. During the course of these negotiations, the Department of National Defence stepped forward, resolved the issue in a two-day period, and agreed to reimburse the veteran for his travel to Trenton.
In the second case, during the course of an in-depth transition interview, it was recognized that a veteran had significant mental health issues. Veterans Affairs Canada did not follow up with the veteran after he retired from the Canadian Forces. When his condition deteriorated, the veteran wound up in the criminal justice system and was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. The family contacted the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman because they did not know where else to turn. We liaised with Veterans Affairs Canada, which eventually addressed the issue.
These two examples show the importance of responding quickly to the needs of veterans suffering from operational stress injuries, since their problems can deteriorate quickly.
That is why the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman will continue to be on guard and provide advice concerning services and programs offered to veterans dealing with operational stress injuries and the Department's transformation agenda. All of the measures designed to simplify and expedite the delivery of services will have a positive impact on veterans who have operational stress injuries.
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman will work with the Department on mental health issues, and will challenge it from time to time, when we intervene on behalf of the veterans who seek our services. I would also like to point out that employees of the Office have received training so they are better able to help veterans in distress when they call. That information has been very useful.
Individual interventions, discussions with the Department in that regard and any systemic research we might undertake in future will be based on research and studies done by other organizations. That will avoid duplicating effort in this area.
There are a number of relevant areas that you may want to consider in your work, as these may have been overshadowed by more visible issues. Among other things, there are access to occupational stress injury clinics and transition challenges. Maybe I'll elaborate a little bit about these particular points.
In terms of access to occupational stress injury clinics, we are concerned that people in crisis don't have direct access to occupational stress injury clinics. There are challenges with transitions, going from a spectrum of care in the National Defence area to a spectrum of care by Veterans Affairs Canada. The difference between transitioning from medication and transitioning from a caregiver is an issue that needs to be looked at.
There is complex bureaucracy and red tape in processes at Veterans Affairs, which in fact are really worse for somebody suffering from mental injuries than for somebody suffering from physical injuries. Everything makes those more complex for them.
There is also how Veterans Affairs is dealing with new research that is available in different fields, recognizing some of the latest reports that make linkages between conditions of service and possible injuries. There is the national strategy on homeless veterans. There is awareness and access to programs and services for reservists in particular, and the lack of research on veterans in the criminal justice system. Previously we quoted an example about somebody who did end up in the justice system, but there is no way of tracking how many veterans are in fact there right now.
In 2011 I will continue to push forward on veterans issues by focusing on unfair practices and making realistic recommendations for change. This will benefit all veterans, including those with operational stress injuries.
To focus energies and to guide both me and the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, I have chosen “One Veteran” as the 2011 theme. This will reinforce the idea that 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 and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to determine the level of programs and services that will be provided based on the type of service rendered is an injustice of the first order.
To this end, I will be working closely with veterans advocacy groups to encourage them to consolidate their efforts to make the “One Veteran” principle a Veterans Affairs Canada reality, with the focus on service in general rather than on service “where and when”. I believe that the application of the “One Veteran” principle will simplify processes, lower costs, and result in better service to veterans.
In the coming months, based on the September 2009 report the office published entitled “Serve with Honour, Depart with Dignity”, I intend to pursue the recommendations already made to the minister regarding funeral and burial expenses. I will be putting forth recommendations on identified unfairness issues concerning the veterans independence program, and I will be taking a critical look at the Veterans Affairs transformation agenda.
I encourage you and your parliamentary colleagues to move to pass Bill C-55, an act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act. Although not comprehensive, the extra support that is offered is needed.
In conclusion, I want you to know that I focus on people and the effectiveness of outcomes rather than processes. We are seeing positive changes in the world of mental health at the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman. We will continue to provide an objective viewpoint as to whether or not these outcomes are successful.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.