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Evidence of meeting #36 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 dnd.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Charlotte Stewart  Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs
Krista Locke  Regional Director General, Atlantic Regional Office, Department of Veterans Affairs
Bernard Butler  Director General, Policy and Research Division, Department of Veterans Affairs

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

We're in a little different situation today, and I hope you appreciate it. You folks have been through it a lot before. I understand that your combined opening time is about 10 minutes. Is that correct?

The committee has agreed that even if the bells start, we'll finish hearing your opening presentation. We'll stop at that point to go up and vote, and then we'll come back into questions and answers.

I want to welcome you. I'm not going to give your whole titles again. You've all been here before. We have Charlotte, Krista, and Bernard back. It's always nice to have you here.

I'm going to ask whoever is starting to please do so.

3:35 p.m.

Charlotte Stewart Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon.

As noted, my name is Charlotte Stewart. I, as well, will not go through our respective titles. I'm pleased to be here with Krista Locke and Bernard Butler.

I am pleased to be here again today to talk about transformation and build on the presentations you have already heard.

Our commitment to serve Canada's veterans is at the forefront of our Transformation Agenda. Our objective continues to be to improve the quality of life for veterans—and to do so by ensuring they receive the benefits and services they so rightly deserve.

VAC's transformation was formally initiated in May 2010, after a strong record of service since the department's establishment. The department at that time, though, was at a critical juncture, characterized by a dramatic shift in veterans' demographics. This called for fundamental changes to VAC's programs, service delivery, and organizational structure so as to better respond to the needs of veterans.

The transformation agenda is therefore set in the context of demographic change. The group of Canadians that VAC has traditionally served—veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War—are declining in number. At the same time, the number of Canadian Forces veterans is climbing. Although the latter group will be smaller than the traditional veteran population, its members have more complex needs and higher expectations. This challenges the department to serve these clients differently.

As you heard in David Robinson's opening remarks for this study on transformation, this is a five-year plan. We will continue to see improvement as each component is implemented and becomes fully operational. Each year of progress builds on the progress of the previous year.

Our vision for 2015 is that Veterans Affairs Canada will be a responsive and efficient department capable of providing services and benefits to veterans in the method of their choice. The department will be smaller, but service to veterans will be improved.

l'd like to talk about the department's commitment to the transformation priority of reducing the complexity of policies, processes, and practices. The policy renewal project, since inception, has helped to provide a simpler and more responsive policy environment to assist departmental staff in delivering benefits and services in a less complex manner while providing a more effective service to clients.

The project includes a standardized format for all policies, revised and simplified policies, quality assurance, a formal policy review cycle, and online access. By March 2013, more than 400 policies will have been revised, some will be consolidated, and outdated ones eliminated.

Revised policies are now in a user-friendly format, with built-in links to legislation, business processes, and other related information, all searchable by program area using the internal VAC website. This gives staff the resources they need to confidently make decisions for veterans.

Now l would like to explain how we have embraced the challenge of transformation from a veteran's perspective. l will also describe the changes we are making, which will benefit them over the next five years. The handout you have been provided today provides more details on our five-year transformation plan.

In year one, we laid the foundation for change. Veterans and their families are already seeing a commitment to change and the results of progress to streamline processes to improve turnaround times.

The following are a few examples. Veterans are getting payments quicker, as we introduced direct deposit for VIP and treatment benefits—a decision that has already positively impacted almost 50,000 veterans. Veterans are getting decisions faster, as we increased decision-making authority for front-line staff. Veterans are also noticing less red tape, as we eliminated the requirements for subsequent pre-authorizations for 77% of our treatment benefits. Furthermore, most veterans' calls are being answered in two minutes.

By the end of year two, veterans will see further improvements in turnaround times and communications with the department through the use of more modern technology. For example, they will have online access to policies and they will receive decision letters that are easier to understand.

For the next couple of years, the focus will be on enhancing our new technological capabilities, enabling veterans to contact the department with a call, click, or visit. More information will be available online to help veterans understand our policies and track their claims. Veterans will be able to connect with Veterans Affairs Canada through multiple communication channels. Veterans will know that the department will identify their needs as they release from service so they can experience a smooth transition; and veterans will be able to apply online, receive decisions in a timely manner, and access treatments without delay and from preferred and approved providers. They will have electronic access to details on treatment benefits. They will only have to complete one application for benefits and services, and will deal with staff who are empowered to make decisions. Veterans will receive professional service from employees who understand the military culture.

Before I close, I would like to say that it is important to remember that this type of fundamental change will take time. The progress the department is making is steady. We will know that we have succeeded when veterans tell us we have.

I will now ask Krista to speak about how these changes are being implemented and viewed at the regional level by those employees who work mostly closely with the veterans.

May 29th, 2012 / 3:40 p.m.

Krista Locke Regional Director General, Atlantic Regional Office, Department of Veterans Affairs

Thank you, Charlotte.

l would just like to pick up on a few points that my colleague made and demonstrate the effect these initiatives are having in the field from a client service point of view.

As part of our transformation initiatives, we have been cutting red tape for our veterans, and they are getting decisions more quickly. One of the contributing elements of our success to date has been our investments in strengthening our case management services.

Case managers and other front-line staff work closely with veterans on a daily basis. They are very much the face of the department for many of our clients. Case management has been strengthened through the introduction of an enhanced case management tool. This newly enhanced tool encourages a holistic approach to case planning, eliminates unnecessary duplication of information, and is overall much more navigable and user-friendly, resulting in better case planning. And better case planning means better care for our clients.

In addition to better tools, front-line staff have also been delegated more authority. Case managers now have the ability to approve more benefits for veterans, resulting in more timely access to rehabilitation, health, and treatment benefits. This means many decisions no longer have to flow through the regional office or head office levels for approval.

As well, workload intensity tools have been developed to help front-line staff balance fair and equitable caseloads. The roles and responsibilities of case managers and client service agents are being more clearly defined so that each group can effectively focus on their designated tasks.

Looking to the future, the changes we are making will continue to eliminate unnecessary red tape as we strive to deliver better and faster service to veterans and their families. These changes will also allow our department to continue to meet or exceed our service standard of one case manager for every 40 case-managed veterans.

Reducing complexity is another way our department is transforming. As indicated by Charlotte, we have completely re-engineered our treatment benefits program by eliminating the requirement for subsequent pre-authorizations for more than 75% of our treatment benefits. Veterans will no longer need to contact VAC again for future requests for an already authorized benefit. It will also help to significantly reduce the number of claims requiring authorizations, which will ensure veterans and service providers receive faster payments for treatment benefits. Just think about the time, energy, and money that this process will save over the long term.

Another example Charlotte mentioned regarding ways in which we have improved service delivery to our veterans is our phone service—as we call it, the national client contact network and treatment authorization centre network. The NCCN/TAC network is a toll-free call centre for our clients and for our service providers.

It has certainly been a year of change for the network. A number of new initiatives were put into place to transform operations to improve service. Examples include the installation of a new telephony system, which allows a call to go to a first available agent anywhere in the country. We invested in a workforce management tool, which is a technology that allows us to predict call volume and ensure adequate workforce to meet our demand. We also implemented estimated wait-time messaging for callers, which allows callers to hear a message within five seconds, as soon as our wait times exceed two minutes.

I am pleased to report that we have made significant strides in improving the service. Since the investment in the workforce management tool, we have consistently met a grade of service of 80%, which means that 80% of the time, callers have their call answered within two minutes or less.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that our transformation efforts will continue to focus on ways to better serve our clients. Going forward, we will continue to find new and innovative ways to connect, collaborate, and communicate with our veterans. Our vision is that one day clients will have the convenience and flexibility of doing business through the channel of their choice.

On behalf of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Chair, we thank you for having us. We welcome the opportunity to support your work in this matter and welcome any questions you may have.

Thank you.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

Thank you very much.

As I said earlier, we're going to go up to the vote.

I just want to tell all committee members that as soon as the vote is over, we're coming right back and convening.

We'll suspend until after the vote.

Thank you very much.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

We're back in business. It's been a most unusual day so far. I'm going to shorten the times for questions, if everybody agrees. We just don't have time to do the rounds in the full amount we wanted. We'll start with four-minute rounds.

We'll go first to Mr. Stoffer for four minutes.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Folks, thank you very much for coming today.

Krista, concerning the changes to your phone service in the national contact centre network, I understand, if I'm not mistaken, that DVA has allowed some of this phone work to go to Service Canada. Am I correct?

4:30 p.m.

Regional Director General, Atlantic Regional Office, Department of Veterans Affairs

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

So whom should we speak to at Service Canada to invite them to a committee hearing to ask how they proceed with this change? Also, I understand that some of those calls then go on to a private company called Quantum, if I'm not mistaken. Would you be in the capacity to answer questions about Quantum or would that be Service Canada?

4:30 p.m.

Regional Director General, Atlantic Regional Office, Department of Veterans Affairs

Krista Locke

I believe that would be Service Canada. We do have a partnership with Service Canada that started in January this year. They do take some general calls on our behalf. I will hand it over to my colleague, who can provide you with a name.

4:30 p.m.

Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

Charlotte Stewart

Okay. With respect to the Service Canada partnership, there's one point that I'd like to add to Krista's comments, Mr. Chair.

We have indeed entered into a partnership with Service Canada. Our objective is to enhance access to information for veterans. Service Canada provides general information on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada to veterans who call them. At the same time, by their answering general inquiries, it allows more complex cases to be handled by our trained staff at Veterans Affairs Canada.

Service Canada has worked very closely with us to ensure that the agents who answer their phones are very well trained in veterans programs and services. Service Canada has contracted with a third party to provide those services. It's a Canadian company. They use this as a way to ensure they have the appropriate workforce in place to answer the call demand.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

And the name of the person?

4:30 p.m.

Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

Charlotte Stewart

I'd have to refer that to Service Canada.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Okay.

My other question for you is the following. The bottom of year five of your chart refers to veterans making “one application for benefits and services, and [that they will] deal with staff who are empowered to make decisions.” I would think that empowering the staff to make the decisions would be something that would get higher priority. I don't know why it would take five years to give them that authority—though I know some of it is being done now. I'd like you to comment a little more as to why that wouldn't be further up the scale.

You also state that “Veterans' organizations and stakeholders will be invited to interact with the Department more directly and more often than in the past.” Well, they've done that, as you know. They've made many recommendations and very few of those recommendations have ever been accepted. When I talk to these organizations, they're quite frustrated. They have these stakeholder meetings and their input is either delayed or only one or two of their recommendations are taken into account. So they're a bit frustrated by that.

Are you indicating, then, that these stakeholder groups, who are unanimous in some of their calls for changes, will be listened to and their policies will be adhered to more often?

4:30 p.m.

Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

Charlotte Stewart

Mr. Chair, I will answer the first part of that question, and then I'll ask my colleague, Bernard Butler, to speak to stakeholder engagement.

On the empowerment of our front-line staff, that's part of our vision statement for 2015, but it does not reflect an end state only for that point in time. In fact, we are empowering the front-line staff today. We've had the opportunity to speak a little bit about that. I won't take too much time, but I will say that we have given our front-line staff, including case managers and client service agents, the ability to make decisions for veterans immediately. In the past, these decisions at times had to be referred to other parts of the organization. So that empowerment has already begun. It will be deepened and we'll continue our commitment to that over the next few years as we seek additional delegations in other program areas as well, which will also speed up service to veterans.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

I'm going to have to ask Mr. Butler to respond in the next round because we are quite a bit over time. We've shortened the question period.

Now we'll go to Mr. Chisu for four minutes.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Corneliu Chisu Conservative Pickering—Scarborough East, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Thank you for being here.

I have a question regarding how you will be working with DND to improve veterans' transition from the service. I know that when a person is retiring from the Canadian Forces, National Defence gives that person information ahead of time, and they are staffing the disengagements from the service.

How will you be working with DND to smooth this transition? That is a very important thing. The day that you retire from the army is a psychological shock. It was for me, and you can imagine how it is for some other people. That you're out of the service is depressing. It is very important to work with DND to facilitate this kind of transition so that people will not feel depressed. How do you look at this area? How can you have a say? What measures are you taking?

4:35 p.m.

Director General, Service Delivery and Program Management, Department of Veterans Affairs

Charlotte Stewart

It is indeed a critical point in a releasing member's experience. The experience that they have in the Canadian Forces is not the same as having a career in many other walks of life. For those who are leaving the Forces, they feel a loss of their connection to their careers. We recognize in Veterans Affairs Canada just how sensitive and important this juncture is in their lives.

With respect to how we work with DND, I'm going to mention two areas. We have a number of areas where we have formal agreements with DND about how we will support the smooth integration and transition of members as they release, but I'll focus on two right now. The first one is what we call the “continuity of care”. This means that as VAC and DND develop new programs and services, they will ensure that there is an integration or harmonization between them. So if a member is releasing from the military, and if he has medical issues or needs vocational assistance, he'll be prepared for that transition from the military by the Department of National Defence.

Our goal—and we work very closely on this—is to make sure that we link up with them as early in the process as possible, that our programs and services are harmonized with theirs, and that our case managers are connected with theirs early on, so that the releasing member gets to know the VAC case manager. That transition, which can be a two-year process, is a partnership. When they leave the Department of National Defence, they're not entering an unknown area. They will be well acquainted with VAC and with their VAC case manager.

The other area that is perhaps more important for the releasing member with a medical or psychological issue is what we call our “casualty management and transition”. It requires a high level of agreement between the two departments. We ensure that those with medical or psychosocial issues are fully supported. This starts from the moment they're injured. Both departments receive notification of the injury at the same time. VAC case managers are assigned along with DND case managers, and the support and the benefits and services are provided by Veterans Affairs Canada, often well before release from the military. We work to support that individual through a full reintegration, including assistance in setting up a new career. At the same time, we want to support the family. That's part of the process.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

Thank you very much.

Now we go to Mr. Casey for his four minutes.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I provided a notice of motion to the committee on May 16. I advised the witnesses ahead of time that I would be presenting the motion here.

I move that the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs establish a subcommittee to immediately undertake a study regarding the subject matter of the sections of Bill C-38, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 29, 2012 and other measures, which directly fall within the mandate of this committee, namely part 4, division 50: Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act .

That's the motion for which I provided notice.

May I speak to it now, or do you want to put me on the speakers list?

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

We do have a speakers list we will follow and I do have Mr. Harris on it. You have the right to speak first, though.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

Thank you.

You have the motion before you. Essentially, as you know, this is an attempt by the Liberal Party to have the budget bill subjected to closer scrutiny, in particular by the committees responsible for the statutes that have been directly affected. You would also know that since this committee was formed after the last election, we have not had any legislation come before it. There have been no changes proposed to any of the statutes for which we are responsible. So here we are, knowing that one of the things that we're supposed to do is to consider changes to the statutes falling within our jurisdiction, and the first time one of them comes along, that statute has not been sent to the committee. So I'm asking the committee basically to do the work for which it has been mandated.

You will note that the motion calls for the formation of a subcommittee, and that's specifically out of respect for Mr. Harris's motion that we examine the transformation agenda. That is very important work that we're now doing. By striking a subcommittee, that work can continue and we can proceed on a parallel track. We could strike a subcommittee of this group to examine the impacts of Bill C-38 at the same time as continuing with the important work we're doing here today. So the motion is not meant to derail the work of the committee but to do it in parallel.

That's the motion and that's the rationale for it. Thank you.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

I have Mr. Harris next on the list.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

I move that we go in camera.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Liberal Charlottetown, PE

I'm asking for a recorded division.

Is that debatable?

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

No.

The motion's been made to go in camera and we want a recorded vote on that.

All those in favour of the motion?

(Motion agreed to: yeas 6; nays 5)

The motion to go in camera has been accepted, so to our witnesses, I will again suspend for a minute as we go in camera. Stay tuned.

Thank you very much.

[Proceedings continue in camera]

[Public proceedings resume]