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Evidence of meeting #37 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 transformation.

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

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

I call the meeting to order.

Now that our guest has arrived, we can start.

We have a quorum, and everybody is in place. I am certainly pleased that for our continuing study of transformation initiatives, Ombudsman Guy Parent is here. With him is Gary Walbourne. Guy will introduce him properly. Also from the department—almost Guy's counterpart in the punching circles—is Keith Hillier.

Both of you are veterans before this committee in your own right, and we're very pleased to have you here today. You certainly know the routine. We'll have the comments first and then there will be questions from the committee, so there's no surprise there.

If we're all ready to go, then, Mr. Parent, are you prepared to start?

3:30 p.m.

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

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee.

First of all, Gary Walbourne is the director general of operations and also the deputy ombudsman. He accompanies me any place where there are going to be some hard questions.

3:30 p.m.

Voices

Oh, oh!

3:30 p.m.

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

Guy Parent

It's a pleasure to be here today to contribute to the important work that your committee does to ensure that Canada faithfully repays the debt owed to our veterans of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. They have served with unlimited liability, and we should repay them with fairness.

Although the process of transformation in Veterans Affairs Canada began in 2009, it is only in the last few months that my office has had some visibility in the process. My special advisor regularly attends the field operations advisory committee meetings and thus keeps me informed of upcoming changes.

I would highlight two key challenges when discussing Veterans Affairs Canada transformation. The first is that many changes, although approved, have not yet been implemented. This means that neither the department nor my office is yet in a position to speak to the effects of some of these changes. The second is that activities related to the transformation agenda, particularly in the human resources domain, are taking place at the same time as changes related to the recently announced budget reduction. This overlap may make it more difficult for the department to relate effects directly back to transformation activities.

Overall, my office is encouraged by the proposed changes under the Transformation agenda. The importance of streamlining processes and reducing barriers of access for our veterans cannot be overstated. What is important to remember, however, is that Transformation must be focused on the end result—streamlining services and processes to meet the needs of veterans, their families and representatives. Transformation should not be an exercise focused solely on streamlining infrastructure or counting assets.

I have reviewed the transcripts of the testimonies preceding mine and with your indulgence, I would like to address the issue of Transformation in line with the five themes that Veterans Affairs Canada has identified: reducing complexity, overhauling service delivery, strengthening partnerships, sustaining the New Veterans Charter and aligning with veteran demographics.

Let me now address the transformation themes.

Reducing complexity—how do we get to a point where complexity of access to programs causes unfairness? Brigadier-General (retired) Larry Gollner, who was a member of my advisory committee, puts it this way:

...the answer lays with understanding that whenever public money and/or benefits are available for distribution an accounting system is set up. A system which grows constantly becoming increasingly complex so that eventually it reaches the optimum bureaucratic level of satisfaction. That is when more money is spent managing the system than is spent providing benefit to those the system is meant to serve.

Many veterans perceive this to be true. Transformation must therefore focus on the needs of veterans and their families rather than on the administrative needs of the department. Some of the recent changes announced by the department, such as the upfront payments now being made for grounds maintenance and housekeeping services under the veterans independence program, are good first steps, but the department's responsibility does not cease with system change. Follow-up and continuous improvement must be part of transformation.

My office has also done work in this area. In February 2012, we released a report concerning reasons for decisions, which provided recommendations to the department to assist with their written correspondence. In addition, the Office has developed tools such as the Benefits Navigator to help unravel the complexity surrounding programs and benefits. I understand that the Benefits Navigator is now available to all Veterans Affairs Canada staff, and I have been assured by the minister that by the end of the year, it will be publicly available to all veterans through the Veterans Affairs Canada website.

On overhauling service delivery, testimony presented to the committee thus far has focused on mechanical aspects of the department's planned changes. What is yet to be addressed is how the overall effects of these initiatives are going to change the culture within the department. These cultural changes will need to be clearly communicated, not only internally to departmental staff who are working in a changing environment but also to the veterans community. Employees and clients need to understand and appreciate the efforts being undertaken on their behalf, and staff must embrace these changes and communicate them effectively to veterans.

Veterans Affairs Canada is the agent responsible for paying the debt Canada owes to our injured veterans. It is not a social services program. I believe that the presumptive philosophy that military service affects a veteran's health and wellness should be inherent in the department's culture.

Strengthening partnerships is more than just having a department that works with the Canadian Forces and the RCMP, veterans groups, and other stakeholders. To be truly transformational, veterans must perceive that their interests are seen to be represented at all levels.

There remains a lack of understanding of veterans benefits and services amongst many veterans. This is a symptom of decades of reactive communications whereby veterans had to self-identify before engaging with the department. Veterans Affairs Canada must be more proactive when reaching out to veterans and must ensure that the communication tools they use meet the varied needs of their clients.

Transparency is the key to successful partnerships in a transformational environment. Providing all stakeholders with the necessary information to have informed debate strengthens the system. This is one of the key reasons the office looks forward to the benefits navigator going public. Being proactive in seeking out veterans before they have a need creates positive relationships.

I have spoken in the past about the creation of a national veteran's identification card to facilitate communication and the provision of services to veterans.

As the raison d'être of Veterans Affairs Canada is to serve veterans, meaningful transformation cannot occur without the engagement and full participation of veterans. Delivering benefits and administering programs for injured veterans requires engagement from many governments and from many government organizations and veterans groups. The department, through its transformation initiative, must strive to ensure that the efforts of many are harmonized and coordinated to simplify access and to avoid duplication.

I would now like to address the New Veterans Charter. That charter introduced a new concept, shifting the emphasis from benefits dependency to a transition to a civilian life where the physical, psychological and social barriers are addressed. Having viable options is the key to a successful transition.

To this date, the New Veterans Charter has not been well understood by many. The department should do more to proactively educate the veterans' community about the full spectrum of benefits available so that one can believe that there will be better options for the future than remaining in the present.

This committee had directed that the changes to the enhanced new Veterans Charter be reviewed in 2013. In that light, my team, in consultation with stakeholders, is preparing a complete review and analysis of the new Veterans Charter that will be presented to the government in due time. It does not mean that I will be waiting for that time to pursue change. The new Veterans Charter is a living document. When I see an unfair practice, such as the discrepancy with the earnings loss benefit minimum salary for reservists, I will actively pursue that change, concurrent with conducting the review.

Next is aligning with veterans demographics. The department's transformation initiative currently centres on demographic projections that indicate that the number of Veterans Affairs Canada clients is going to decrease. There are currently over 500,000 veterans who are not yet clients of Veterans Affairs Canada. The department's own life-after-service studies show that two-thirds of Canadian Forces former regular force personnel released between 1998 and 2007 are not receiving benefits. However, 54% of those report at least one physical health condition; 13% report at least one mental health condition; and many report chronic health conditions they attribute to their service. These statistics indicate that there is a potential unknown liability associated with the unmet needs of veterans who are not aware of existing programs.

We need to keep in mind that the number of veterans is but one indicator of workload. Demographics alone do not capture the full extent of future requirements. I would contend that the complexity of managing the case of a modern-day veteran who suffers from PTSD and has a family is much more intensive than that of an older, traditional veteran who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer's or dementia. Significant case management resources are required in both cases to meet the needs of these individual veterans. Future needs are likely to be more demanding, especially when one considers that three decades of high operational tempo for the Canadian Forces have only now started to show their effects.

This is why I'm concerned that between current unmet needs and potential future needs, the assumption that the department's work intensity and client numbers are going to drop is somewhat questionable.

Finally, I believe that it is critical throughout the Transformation process that Veterans Affairs Canada have the means to measure whether changes are having the intended impact and what degree of success has been achieved from the perspective of both the veteran and the administrator. The tools must be in place to measure both the quantitative as well as the qualitative effects of Transformation. The department should be proactive in establishing sound mechanisms to measure effectiveness and wherever and whenever it is possible, the department needs to engage with veterans.

My office is currently engaged with the department to recommend some best practices in the area of performance measurement. For our part, the office has put in place mechanisms within our personal complaints tracking system to detect and highlight complaints related to service delivery and changes in turnaround times or access to services. We will continue to proactively monitor media reports and solicit feedback from veterans groups in order to quickly identify any areas of concern.

Let me conclude by restating the importance of having a transformation agenda that is focused on improving service to veterans, their families, and their representatives. Transformation should not be an exercise focused solely on streamlining infrastructure or assets. Transformation is about people, and the department must ensure that improving service to veterans remains at the centre of these changes.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention. We now stand ready to answer any questions.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

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

Mr. Hillier, I understand you have a few comments before we go to questions

May 31st, 2012 / 3:40 p.m.

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

Thank you, Chair.

Good afternoon.

It is a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon.

It's a pleasure to be here with Mr. Parent, the veterans ombudsman, to support this committee's study on transformation at Veterans Affairs Canada.

l thank the ombudsman for his remarks. While it is true that the OVO and VAC serve very different functions, at the core both organizations exist to serve Canadian veterans and their families. We have seen in the past that the ombudsman plays an important role in serving veterans.

As the department undergoes its current process of transformation, Mr. Parent and his team will continue to provide valuable insight. l look forward to the shared work our organizations will undertake in the coming years. l will begin by providing an overview of what we have been able to accomplish since the transformation process began in 2011. By cutting red tape, we are reducing the complexity of navigating departmental processes. An example that my colleagues have discussed is the re-engineering of the treatment benefits program. Today, approximately 77% of the subsequent pre-authorization requirements have been removed. This means that veterans will not need to repeatedly contact the department to receive a pre-authorization for benefits that had been authorized on a previous occasion.

We have also begun to overhaul our model of service delivery. A prime example of this is the additional delegated authorities we've provided to our front-line staff who work directly with veterans. By reducing the number of decisions that have to be approved at regional and head offices, we have made access to rehabilitation, health, and treatment benefits faster and easier.

We have developed an excellent case management tool that allows our staff to better manage their workload. Our case managers provide a holistic case-planning approach and have been granted more decision-making authority, which increases the speed of our service delivery.

These are only some examples of the work we've done, and l'm happy to report that our efforts are already starting to show concrete results. At the national client contact network, VAC's call centre, we are experiencing decreases in client wait-times, reductions in abandoned calls, and an overall increase in the consistency of our services.

In addition to the tools that we've provided to our staff, we have also taken steps to improve our programs. Since I am presenting with the ombudsman today, I would be remiss if I did not mention our department's initiative of providing decision letters in plain language, something that Mr. Parent and his staff accurately identified as a gap in our service.

Another example of a program improvement is the change to the veterans independence program. By changing the VIP from a contribution to an upfront payment, veterans and their families will face a significant reduction in the amount of paperwork they need to fill out. This is the sort of bureaucratic red tape we've committed to removing from the system.

l'll close by discussing the veterans we serve.

We understand that this transformation is an ongoing process, driven by an historic shift in the demographics of the veteran population. In the coming years, we expect the total number of veteran clients to decrease, while the complexity of the modern-day veterans' needs and expectations will increase.

It is this shift toward modern-day veterans that has prompted us to improve the service delivery channels we offer. We want to be in a position to provide services by the Internet, by telephone, or in person. Our commitment is to provide the best quality services and benefits to veterans and their families. We will accomplish this by ensuring that we have the right people in the right places with the right skills to get the job done. Naturally, some of our offices are going to get smaller while some offices are going to get larger. Over time, our front-line staff will be positioned where the needs are greatest, which will be determined by veteran demographics.

I thank the members of the committee and the ombudsman for their time and attention, and welcome any questions that you may have.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

Thank you very much, Mr. Hillier.

We'll go to Mr. Stoffer.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and my thanks to you gentlemen for coming today.

Mr. Parent, a while back you issued a report and a discussion on reservists and regular force personnel. In Afghanistan, if you had a regular force person and a reservist, and they both suffered the same injury, their payments or pension benefits might be different when they came back. Your report was pretty straightforward. I wonder if you had any response from the department on this part of your report.

3:45 p.m.

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

Guy Parent

Thank you for the question.

I believe you are talking about the annual report...?

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Yes.

3:45 p.m.

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

Guy Parent

Okay. I think the distinction to be made there, and in fact a clarification, is that a reservist injured while on duty in Afghanistan on that type of deployment is entitled to the same benefits as a regular force soldier. What concerns us is the people who fall into the other classes of reserves—the class B under 180 days, and the class A. In the interests of fairness, regardless of what the service contract is, somebody who actually gets injured in the service of his country deserves the same recognition and the same benefits.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Have you had a response back on that from the minister or the department?

3:45 p.m.

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

Guy Parent

Not necessarily. What has happened in that context.... We've actually had the meetings with, first of all, Veterans Affairs Canada, which said that it was the responsibility of DND. We subsequently met with the chief of military personnel in DND, who said it was a Veterans Affairs Canada matter. So no, it still stands where it is, and we're still pushing the issue of treating a reservist the same as a regular force soldier in the context of suffering injuries and earning benefits.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Thank you very much.

This question can be for either side, if you wish. When a military person no longer meets universality of deployment, they are generally medically released, whereas in the RCMP they do everything they can in order to employ that person within the RCMP. Should the rules change? Or should there be a better sort of aspect to ensure that men and women who wish to stay in the service—maybe in an administrative role or something of that nature—indeed get an opportunity to stay and to wear the uniform, although in a different capacity?

As you know, many of them leave the service because of a medical problem. Many of them have quite the challenges in dealing with that. I know that, in the public service priority hiring, DND has done most of the hiring, and DVA has done a very little bit. The rest of the public service has failed miserably when it comes to hiring veterans or military personnel.

But is there not a possible way, Mr. Hillier or Mr. Parent, that more members of the military who are injured can stay within some capacity of DND in the future?

3:50 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs

Keith Hillier

Well, maybe I'll start with regard to the universality of service. As to whether someone should stay in DND, I would really defer that question to them.

On your broader question related to the public service, you are correct. DND certainly has hired significant numbers and Veterans Affairs has hired some. But there is continuing work going on and there are continuing discussions going on with the Public Service Commission in looking at ways that we could do even better across the public service in this particular regard.

But I think that one of the things we must remember, Mr. Chair, is that many of the people who leave the Canadian Forces aren't necessarily interested in a job in a government department. That's why we have moved ahead with our partnership with Helmets to Hardhats, for example, so that we can provide a diversity of options to individuals, and that's why we have career transition and other programs.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Hillier, I was wondering if you can tell me this. On the phone calls that are going on where somebody calls a 1-866 number and you can get back or you can get Service Canada, can you explain how Quantum, the private company, fits into this?

3:50 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Because I'm rather puzzled as to why Quantum would answer the phone and say they are the Department of Veterans Affairs when they answer the phone. How does that actually work?

3:50 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs

Keith Hillier

Well, I think I need to first explain to you why we're doing it.

First of all, what we want to do is for very routine questions—people who may want an information kit or a brochure or something—we don't want to use the valuable time of our skilled and trained employees to handle those routine questions. So when a veteran calls the number, they basically have an option that says, “If you're a client of Veterans Affairs Canada, if you're a veteran, or if you are a family member, push one, and if you're looking for general information around veterans' issues, push two”. That goes to Service Canada.

We have a contract with Service Canada to handle those calls. We have been working with Service Canada for many years. When we've had various issues with new programs or what have you, and also to allow for surge capacity to be able to handle our calls, we've often used Service Canada in the past. So this is not new.

Service Canada has a number of government employees and a number of contract employees. I believe it was in the year 2008 that Service Canada entered into this contract with the company you refer to. These employees are trained to the standards that we set. We've actually had our managers over in the centre, making sure that the veterans are getting the service they need.

Quite simply, what we want to do is that we want to leave our staff, who are well trained in veterans issues, to handle the approximately 800,000 phone calls we receive in a year, and in so doing, have some of the more general non-client-related.... For example, Service Canada does not access the private information of a veteran. They do not have access to the database.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Greg Kerr

Thank you very much.

Ms. Adams, for five minutes.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

Thank you very much for appearing here before us again, Monsieur Parent, Mr. Hillier, and Mr. Walbourne. My first question is for Monsieur Parent.

In your December 2011 report, you recommended to the minister more plain language and more clearly identifiable information in the disability benefit assessment letters. In fact, that recommendation was welcomed by the minister, and significant changes have been undertaken. We refer to this as the plain language initiative, where a document that is sent out to the veteran clearly, in plain language, communicates exactly how a decision has been derived, what information was relied upon, and how someone might go about appealing that decision.

Could you provide me with some feedback, please, on your assessment of these new initiatives?

3:55 p.m.

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

Guy Parent

Yes, we were instrumental in moving the department to simplify its correspondence. Even recently, in the report that we released, “Reasons for Decisions”, we indicated that it's not only the language but also the content that's important. I'm glad to report that there is some improvement in the process, but we are still looking at what will be the overall effect.

What's important to realize here is not only the simplicity, that people understand, but also that the principles of natural justice are respected. That's our concern, as well. The report contained a reflection of what information should be contained in the letter, and what is necessary for people to carry on with the process or to simply stop where they are.

Yes, there's a definite improvement. We're happy with the efforts that are being made in the decision letters now. There is a move forward in that, and we're happy with it.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

Thank you very much, Monsieur Parent.

Mr. Hillier, in terms of red tape reduction at the ministry and the type of red tape our veterans are facing, could you provide us with some information about what the ministry is doing to reduce the red tape that our veterans face, in particular with the VIP, the veterans independence program?

3:55 p.m.

Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs

Keith Hillier

The VIP is certainly one of the largest efforts. Through this initiative we will eliminate 2.5 million transactions annually. That's 2.5 million instances where veterans were submitting receipts to be authorized for payment. It will make life much simpler for the veterans. As the minister announced in the spring, we are working to start in the fall to phase this in for Canada's veterans.

Certainly, from visiting with some veterans and talking with some veterans organizations, the general consensus is that this is a good thing. It's not the only thing; there are other items we're working on that I'm sure, in due course, the minister will be announcing.

As my colleague Mr. Parent, has noted, it's about continuous improvement. It's not about doing something and saying that we're there.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Eve Adams Conservative Mississauga—Brampton South, ON

We can't rest on our laurels, but my goodness, 2.5 million instances where veterans no longer need to take the time—to waste time, really—filling out cumbersome paperwork, which then expends valuable taxpayer-funded resources in the government to review and audit it. It's completely pointless and needless.

We certainly don't believe that veterans need to suffer under some sort of nanny state. We believe veterans can be trusted to spend their money wisely, that they're entitled to the money under the program, and that it simply can be provided to them.

Are there other red tape initiatives that you're looking at currently?