Evidence of meeting #103 for Veterans Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was year.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

General  Retired) Walter Natynczyk (Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs
Karen Ludwig  New Brunswick Southwest, Lib.
Michel Doiron  Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery, Department of Veterans Affairs
Charlotte Bastien  Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Oversight and Communications, Department of Veterans Affairs
Rear-Admiral  Retired) Elizabeth Stuart (Assistant Deputy Minister, Chief Financial Officer and Corporate Services, Department of Veterans Affairs
Bernard Butler  Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Commemoration, Department of Veterans Affairs
Richard Martel  Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, CPC

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Phil McColeman

Welcome to meeting number 103 of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs on Thursday, December 6, 2018.

Appearing before us in the first hour today we have the Honourable Seamus O'Regan, the Minister of Veterans Affairs. We have with him General Walt Natynczyk, the Deputy Minister.

Gentlemen, welcome. You have the floor at the start of the meeting.

Members, we are going to go to five-minute rounds all the way around because time is limited, as you know. On that point, I also would ask members to keep their questions concise and clear and to put them forth in a straightforward manner.

I'd ask the witnesses to do the same so that we can get in as many questions as possible.

Minister O'Regan, you have the floor.

3:30 p.m.

St. John's South—Mount Pearl Newfoundland & Labrador

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon to you and all the members of the committee.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear today to discuss the 2018-19 supplementary estimates.

At this midpoint in the fiscal year we are seeking a 1.2% increase in our funding. The majority of this is related to readying ourselves to implement the return of a lifelong pension, which I announced last December.

As you know, starting on April 1, 2019, veterans with service-related illness or injury will have the option of a tax-free monthly pension for life. As had been requested by our veterans and stakeholders, the pension for life includes recognition and compensation for the pain and suffering as a result of a service-related illness or injury.

I want to take a moment here to clear up a key misunderstanding. The new pain and suffering compensation under pension for life is not simply the former disability award split up on a monthly basis. It's not anywhere close, actually. When taken as a monthly benefit, the pain and suffering compensation offers up to a maximum of $1,150 per month for life. A seriously disabled 25-year-old veteran who lives to the age of 75 would stand to receive $690,000 in pain and suffering compensation alone, well above the current disability award of $360,000.

The pension for life program also includes additional compensation for the most seriously injured veterans and an income replacement of 90% of a veteran's pre-release salary for veterans who are in rehabilitation or who are permanently and severely disabled.

Regardless of the duration of their military career, all members of the Canadian Armed Forces will be released one day. Our job is to help them transition smoothly and successfully to life after military service. Our duty is also to commemorate and recognize the service of all military members.

It's important to remember that 93% of all Veterans Affairs' expenditures goes directly to programs and benefits for veterans and their families. This includes health and well-being benefits, transition to civilian life programs and supports for families.

On top of that, over the last three years we have significantly increased the support for veterans. For example, in 2017, the maximum disability award rose from $314,000 to $360,000, indexed to inflation. This alone meant approximately $700 million for more than 67,000 veterans who had already received a disability award.

You may note, actually, that there appears in this year's estimates a slight decrease over last year. This is due directly to the amount we disbursed in topping up veterans with $700 million in disability awards. Even if we hold that one-time payment off to one side, we are still providing more direct benefits to veterans than ever before.

We also increased the earnings loss benefit to 90% of a veteran's indexed salary at time of release, previously set at 75%.

We have also increased supports for families. On April 1 of this year we introduced the caregiver recognition benefit, a benefit that offers $1,000 a month tax free, indexed annually, which is paid directly to the person who cares for an injured veteran.

We also know that the transition from Canadian Armed Forces member to veteran must always include their families, so we have ensured access to the veteran family program at all 32 military family resource centres for veterans who release medically and their families. This helps them establish successfully in their new community while retaining their connection to the military community.

For members with complex needs—for example, those transitioning for medical reasons—a case manager will help coordinate transition planning with the Canadian Armed Forces, side by side with Veterans Affairs Canada. Case managers can also refer veterans and their families to a network of 4,000 mental health professionals. Veterans and family members can receive assistance through our 24-hour toll-free helpline, with access to psychological counselling and other services.

On top of that, for veterans with a service-related illness or injury, there is a range of physical and mental health services available to them. A network of 11 operational stress injury clinics and satellite service sites across the country delivers services where veterans need them.

We can also provide access to mental health services for a veteran's family member if it can be shown that it would help the veteran achieve their rehabilitation goals, but let me be clear—treatment benefits will not be provided by Veterans Affairs if that family member is under the care or custody of a federal institution or correctional facility.

For veterans looking for a career after their military service, we offer qualified career counsellors to advise about labour markets, help prepare resumés and give job search training. In some cases, they can help a veteran find a job.

We also offer veterans access to funding for tuition at colleges and universities or professional training. Those with at least six years of service can be eligible for up to $40,000. Veterans with more than 12 years of service can receive up to $80,000. Since April, when we introduced this education and training benefit, over 1,600 veterans have been approved to get the education and training they want to improve their post-service lives.

I'd also like to take a moment now to discuss the new veterans emergency fund. Established in April of this year, the fund allows Veterans Affairs to provide emergency financial support to veterans, their families and survivors whose well-being is at risk due to an urgent and unexpected situation. The emergency fund is intended to ensure short-term relief while we work to identify long-term needs and provide solutions through our other programs and benefits. To date we have spent over $600,000 to assist veterans and their families in emergency situations.

We also introduced the $3-million veteran well-being fund, because we know there is an incredible amount of community interest in supporting Canada's veterans. I recently announced that there were 21 recipients of this fund, which supports private, public or academic organizations in conducting research and implementing initiatives and projects that support the well-being of veterans and their families. These organizations are tackling complex issues, from veterans' homelessness and transitioning out of the military to mental health and physical rehabilitation.

Over the past year, I've hosted 45 town halls, roundtables and summits. I've met with many veterans, their families and their advocates across the country.

In particular, I met with over 65 organizations during a roundtable on homelessness in Ottawa in June and during the national stakeholder summit in Ottawa in October. Veterans Affairs Canada staff have also held more than 100 outreach activities across Canada.

As a result of this increased engagement, veterans and their families are more aware of the full range of benefits and services that they're eligible for. Over the past two years, we've seen a 32% increase in the number of applications for disability benefits.

We've been listening to veterans. We've heard what they have to say, and we're acting on what we have heard. One of the things that we heard about from veterans was the need to expand the medical expense tax credit to recognize the costs for psychiatric service dogs. Starting this tax year, they can now do that. We also funded a pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of using service dogs to assist veterans with PTSD.

Veterans also told us they want a tangible connection with the veteran community and a symbol of recognition of their service. We brought back the veteran's service card, now open to more veterans than ever before. We are increasing our capacity to deliver services. We reopened the nine field offices that had been closed. We opened a new one. We increased outreach and hired significantly more staff, including more case managers.

This year, we've invested an additional $42.8 million to eliminate the backlog of applications pending for over 16 weeks. We've just introduced a new wait time tool so that veterans can see the average processing time for programs and services.

Canadians value the contribution and sacrifice of veterans and all those who died in service to our country. That's why remembrance plays an important role in what we do. As Minister of Veterans Affairs, I've participated in significant and moving commemorations. We've marked important milestones, such as the centennial of the First World War and the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Over the next two years, we'll mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

We are ensuring that every veteran and family member receives the benefits and services they are eligible for, no matter how they come forward for them. No veteran should ever be turned away from the benefits and services they are entitled to through their service. With the right resources in place, we can move forward toward our common goal of providing the care, support and respect that Canada's veterans deserve.

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Phil McColeman

Thank you, Minister. You're under time, actually.

Mr. Kitchen, you have five minutes.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Minister and General, thank you for being here today.

Minister, you talked about the backlog. According to the figures that your government released to CBC, as of November 3, there were 3,356 veterans whose claims have taken more than a year to be put through the system. That's an increase from the 3,110 cases in the last budget year. What are you getting from that $42 million that you're spending? You're actually going up in numbers in the backlog, not going down.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

We have to do better. There's no question about it. Wait times are bigger. What's interesting, though, is that the number of actual veterans being processed is bigger as well. As I said in my opening statement, we've seen a 32% increase since 2015 in applications, and 60% of those, very interestingly, are for the first time. We know that many of these are veterans who, frankly, had given up on the system. They had given up on a culture that had consistently said no to them. Now it's a culture that more consistently says yes.

We have a large number of people who have come on board looking for services. As the general keeps reminding me, that is a good thing, and indeed it is, because it means that more people are putting up their hands and asking for help. The $42 million we got in the last budget is meant to help us play catch-up.

One of the significant problems we have—we are literally hiring people as fast as we possibly can through the system we have in the federal government—is finding the qualified people. It's easy to lose them. It's easy to fire them. It is far harder to gain them back. A lot of these people are in demand. They're bilingual and they have very specific training for the task. Hiring them back has taken more time than we had hoped.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Thank you.

Further to the backlog, two constituents come to mind. One young gentleman who's 28 years old—I coached him in hockey—stepped up to represent our country, not only here in Canada but in Afghanistan. We found out two days ago that this gentleman finally got his disability claim. It was 63 weeks—not 16 weeks but 63 weeks.

The second constituent has been waiting for over a year. In fact, his paperwork was in place as of December 14 of last year, and he was told that the department was working on files from June of 2017—a year ago. Even if things progress quickly, it will be a year for him on December 14. Let's say it's six months to get to where he is. It's still taken a year and a half to get to where he is.

Now, this young gentleman unfortunately had a mental health crisis. He phoned the assistance line, because he was given that by a caseworker. The assistance line basically said to him that they weren't there to help him. He was fortunate to have friends and family who talked him off of that cliff, but he had six other colleagues in his platoon who committed suicide. If those people had called that line and didn't get assistance, how is that acceptable to this department?

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

It's not acceptable to this department. We continue to put more money and more resources into making sure that situations like that, sir, do not happen.

Walter, do you want to get into the minutiae of it?

3:40 p.m.

General Retired) Walter Natynczyk (Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs

Yes.

Sir, thank you very much for the question. Indeed, every time a veteran comes forward and needs help, we need to provide that help as quickly as we can.

When we drill down with regard to the 3,000 men and women who have made applications and try to figure out why this takes so long, in some cases it's because when the application came in the first time, we didn't have all the information. We have to go back to the veteran and ask them to please give us this or that. Then we go to the Canadian Armed Forces, and if the file is there we ask for the file, or we go to Library and Archives and ask for the file. Then we put it all together in order to land it.

We have tried to make the decision-making a lot faster in the department. For example, once we have all the information for mental health, we've tried to streamline it. Now we know that we're approving over 90% of all applications for mental health.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Robert Gordon Kitchen Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Excuse me for interrupting, General, but I'm talking about this assistance line:

VAC delivers a 24 hours a day, seven days a week VAC Assistance Service (1-800-268-7708) or TDD (1-800-567-5803). This is a confidential counselling and referral service delivered through a nation-wide team of mental health professionals.

If that's what this is supposed to be, and this gentleman phoned and didn't get a mental health professional to be there, how can you sit there and say that this is acceptable? It's not. You're saying something and you're not providing that service. You are not helping our veterans or our soldiers in these situations.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Phil McColeman

I'll have to ask you to respond to that later. We're at the time limit.

Mr. Eyolfson, you have five minutes.

December 6th, 2018 / 3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister, and thank you, General, for coming. It's good to see you again.

As you're aware, over the last couple of weeks we've been studying veterans' homelessness. I initiated the study. There are a number of initiatives the government has started as a whole, outside of Veterans Affairs. There's the national housing strategy and health transfers to the provinces that dedicate spending on mental health services, which, as we know, is a big issue for veterans. We also know that there are new programs from Veterans Affairs—the family well-being fund, the centre of excellence on PTSD and the veterans emergency fund.

Could you summarize how these programs together are helping improve the lives of veterans?

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

There are a number of things that, combined together, we're really hoping are going to help us crack the problem of homelessness.

I created a full national round table on homelessness with some of the best groups in the country—right across the country—some of them regional, some of the national in scope. It was heartening for me to see them sharing best practices with one another, sharing business cards with one another.

There are some things that are going on in some parts of the country that are proving to be remarkably effective. What we're able to do now with the wellness fund is help to basically ramp them up so that they'll be able to help more people in their region or possibly be able to scope things a little more nationally.

While we are doing many things, the issue of homelessness—and I think anybody involved in the field would agree with this—is something that we have to tackle with groups that are close to the ground. I'm proud of the fact that we do that, whether it's VETS Canada or any number of organizations that exist across the country. The Legion is doing incredible work on this, and again, there are some very small, regionally based ones that are doing great work.

Pension for life, because it's a monthly contact with veterans, I think is going to prove to be a very important tool. Instead of getting a disability award and basically being written off the ledger, we will now have the ability to have monthly contact with the veteran and be able to check in with them more frequently than we can now.

There are other things, like the earnings loss benefit and the psychosocial vocational rehabilitation that comes with that. Many veterans now will be receiving 90% of their previous salary. There is the fact that we can offer career transition services that are more than just $1,000 and “good luck with the job search”. We are proactively able to work with them. We're also able to match them up with private sector hiring.

All of that combined, I think, is going to go a long way to helping solve that problem with homelessness.

What I'm most heartened by, again, is listening to groups from across the country who are now working together.

3:45 p.m.

Gen (Ret'd) Walter Natynczyk

I can add that one of the key parts of preventing homelessness is actually pre-emptive, and that is overcoming the stigma of mental health injuries. That's why we've taken on a much more presumptive approach to mental health disability claims.

We are working with the Canadian Armed Forces to work upstream while folks are still in uniform. If they are struggling, it's to ensure that they seek help while they are still in the Canadian Armed Forces. We know about their situation as they transition into civil society in Canada, in order to prevent that sense of hopelessness where they lose their sense of purpose and get into a situation.

Then, as the minister said, it's working with communities across the country, and indeed with veteran networks, because folks know where their battle buddies are. Going to Mr. Kitchen's point, it's battle buddies, shipmates, squadron mates, who are keeping tabs on each other and hopefully intervening early enough before someone gets to that point.

I would also want to reinforce the same point with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for whom we provide some support. Those networks are so important.

Also, then, with regard to this emergency fund, there is the fact that we can now offer, for the first time, emergency funds to an individual without having to prove their total situation or eligibility. When I talked to the case managers across the country, what they said was, not only is it in the case of an emergency but it's bringing veterans in the door.

Veterans who would not otherwise come in are coming in the door and saying they have a need. Then, as we drill down, we find out that folks are eligible for much, much more.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Phil McColeman

You have 15 seconds, sir.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

That's just enough time to say thank you very much.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Phil McColeman

Mr. Johns, you have five minutes.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Thank you, Minister, and thank you, General, for being here.

In the 2018-19 estimates, you asked Parliament to authorize expenditures not exceeding $4,363,061,570, which is $297 million or 6.4% less than you requested in the previous fiscal year.

We know that there's a tremendous backlog of applications for nearly every program administered by Veterans Affairs Canada. You're missing half of your own targets, including applications for the rehabilitation program, which is backlogged; applications for the long-term care program, backlogged; the career transition program, backlogged; earnings loss benefit, backlogged. The war veterans allowance is backlogged, and of course, there is the monster backlog in the processing of applications for disability benefits.

There are 3,000-plus who have been waiting for more than a year—as my friend Mr. Kitchen outlined—to get the help they need, while your own target is to process these applications in just 16 weeks.

Given these backlogs and the lack of basic services for veterans and their families, why did your department request less money from the treasury this year than last? Shouldn't you be asking the treasury for more money overall until these application backlogs are finally cleared?

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

As the honourable member knows—and we had I think a very healthy discussion on lapsed funding in the House of Commons—first of all, it's very important to remember that 93% of our budget goes directly to veterans, either directly into their pockets or into benefits and services that they deserve.

Much of what we distribute in terms of money that goes into people's pockets is quasi-statutory, which means, as you know, that whether it's 10 veterans who raise their hands in any given year or 10,000, we will always have that money ready for them. Any money we see at the end of the year that's a little more than we had budgeted for, a little less than we had budgeted for, immediately goes back into the following year.

I would contest the issue of wait times. This gets back to Mr. Kitchen's point. This is not to take away from our impatience on this, but there is unfortunately, when you put even $42 million into it in a very short amount of time, a significant ramp-up period in order for you to train the right people, to get the right people in place and to hire them, in order for you to significantly take some of those wait times away. It does require a significant amount of ramp-up time.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Minister, I really appreciate that, and I think we appreciate that you've started hiring people back in terms of the thousand jobs that were cut. Why aren't you hiring the thousand people? If it's about HR and you're not able to get the talent that you need in the centre in which you're operating in Charlottetown, have you looked at and explored regional centres so that you can open up and change the way you're doing HR? This is urgent. This is a situation where veterans are falling through the cracks, and they can't wait any longer.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

I couldn't agree more. In terms of regional centres, I think opening up the nine offices has been a tremendous help. I think opening up the 10th office in Surrey has been a help, and I think opening up a mobile office in the northern area has been a help. We are literally hiring people as quickly as we can. There's no number, for instance, such as a thousand. We are just literally hiring as many people as we can get to do very, very particular work that requires very specific training.

Maybe, Walt, you can get into that.

3:50 p.m.

Gen (Ret'd) Walter Natynczyk

On your first question, sir, can I just add that what is I think very beneficial in our budget process is that the quasi-statutory budget the minister mentioned is uncapped and demand driven? Again, through the estimates process and the supplementary estimates process we can ask for the additional money.

With regard to the drop of $200 million, as you mentioned, that was captured with the minister's comment that the year before, with the top-up of the disability award, we—

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

It's actually closer to $300 million. I'm sorry, but I'm running out of time.

3:50 p.m.

Gen (Ret'd) Walter Natynczyk

Sorry.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

I don't think it's the right time to not be asking for more money. I know that the minister talked about 93% going to benefits, but clearly 7% isn't doing it in terms of what you need to budget to serve veterans.

We talked about lapsed spending. Thank you for raising that, Minister.

The minister, veterans, their families, friends, advocates and everyone—indeed, all of us here today and in the House—broadly want better service for veterans. We know that.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer concluded there are three mechanisms for transferring lapsed spending from one year to the next in each department. On November 6, Parliament unanimously supported our opposition day motion to carry forward all lapsed spending at Veterans Affairs each year and to dedicate that additional money, about $124 million per year on average, solely to provide better service for veterans and their families.

My question is simple. The PBO says it's possible, Parliament has unanimously approved the idea, and you personally, Minister, have approved of the idea by voting in favour of our motion. A simple yes or no is what I'm looking for. Will you be writing to the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Finance to request that all lapsed spending be carried forward in the coming year and dedicate that extra $124 million—if that's what it is—per year to improving services to Canada's veterans until all 24 service standards are met, as agreed to in Parliament?

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

We will—