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.