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.