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Evidence of meeting #36 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 offices.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

General  Retired) Walter Natynczyk (Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs
Michel Doiron  Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery Branch, Department of Veterans Affairs
Bernard Butler  Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Commemoration, Department of Veterans Affairs
Elizabeth Stuart  Assistant Deputy Minister, Chief Financial Officer & Corporate Services, Department of Veterans Affairs

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Good afternoon, everybody. I call the meeting to order. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the committee begins its study on the subject matter of supplementary estimates (B) 2016-17, votes 1b and 5b under Veterans Affairs.

I'd like to welcome the Honourable Kent Hehr, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Walter Natynczyk, deputy minister and retired general.

We'll start with the minister for 10 minutes, and then we will go to the witnesses. We have that all in order.

Welcome, Minister. The floor is yours.

December 6th, 2016 / 3:30 p.m.

Calgary Centre Alberta

Liberal

Kent Hehr LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

Good afternoon, Chair and members of the committee. I'm pleased to return to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs to discuss the 2016-17 supplementary estimates (B) to Parliament on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada.

Let me preface my remarks before this committee with an observation of the debt Canada owes its men and women in uniform. Veterans Affairs Canada is working hard to provide veterans and their families with the care and supports they need, when and where they need it.

We're also working to engage Canadians in commemorating all who have served. Last year, the Prime Minister gave me a mandate to ensure that our government lives up to its obligation to veterans and their families. The department has done a lot of work over the past year and has delivered on a number of the priorities in my mandate letter. These supplementary estimates reflect those accomplishments and the work that remains to be done.

My first year as Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence has been rewarding, albeit challenging. I've travelled across the country and I've met outstanding people: older veterans and younger veterans, as well as current members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who will one day become veterans. They have shared their stories and their struggles. I have learned so, so much.

I have learned that while 73% of veterans successfully transition from military to civilian life, 27% of them struggle. They need our help. That is why our department is here, and it's where we're at. This is the reality that we face, and there is no silver bullet. We will make incremental changes and find better and better ways to help veterans rebuild their lives. As a country, we must provide that help.

We are transforming the way the Department of Veterans Affairs works, improving the way we deliver services to veterans and their families. That's the purpose of this supplementary allocation. For this year's supplementary estimates for Veterans Affairs Canada, this supplementary allocation will provide $130 million in funding. This 3.6% increase over the current budget increases it from $3.64 billion to $3.77 billion. These funds will help our government fulfill its commitment to Canada's veterans.

What is the additional allocation for? It will be used to move forward on our stated and approved initiatives, to move forward on the goal of ensuring that we live up to our obligations to our men and women in uniform. These include: increasing the value of the disability award from $310,000 to $360,000; enhancing the earnings loss benefit from 75% to 90% of an injured veteran's pre-release salary; enhancing the permanent impairment allowance so that veteran is appropriately compensated for the impact of a service-related impairment on his or her career; reopening the nine Veterans Affairs offices across the country, with an additional one in Surrey, British Columbia, and extending mobile outreach in Canada's north to ensure we are serving our first nations, Métis, and Inuit veterans adequately; and, hiring more staff to improve delivery of much-needed services to veterans, including hiring more case managers. Each case manager's workload will be, on average, 25 cases to one manager.

The commemoration of Canada's men and women in uniform and of their accomplishments is a key part of Veterans Affairs' responsibilities. That's why the supplementary allocations include funds to commemorate major milestones of the First and Second World Wars, in 2017, the same year in which we will celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.

Events will be held in Canada and France to mark the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge next year. Commemorative ceremonies and events will be held at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, at the national war memorial in Ottawa, and in communities across the country on April 9. Major milestone events will also be held to mark the centennial of the Battle of Passchendaele and the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Dieppe.

The estimates also include an increase in the funeral and burial program that is administered by the Last Post Fund, which provides financial assistance for funeral and burial services, including grave markings for eligible veterans. This will make it easier for veterans' families to provide a dignified funeral and burial for their loved ones.

In addition, there's an allocation for the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, which will be the host city for this international sporting competition for ill and injured military members and veterans. It leverages the rehabilitative powers of sport to honour the men and women who have come face to face with the reality of sacrificing for their country. Team Canada will proudly represent the host country with a roster made up of as many as 90 active Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans.

Finally, the allocation includes a request resulting from the Treasury Board submission for the transfer of Ste. Anne's Hospital from federal to provincial authority.

Veterans Affairs Canada has accomplished a great deal over the past year, but there is still much more to do, and we are working with the Department of National Defence to reduce the complexity of the transition from Canadian Armed Forces member to veteran. We are also working closely with veterans groups and stakeholders to ensure that we get it right on the other items on the priority list, including the re-establishment of an option for a lifelong pension.

All the funding in supplementary estimates (B) has been previously approved by Treasury Board. Our meeting today is simply to have the funding added to the department's current budget. This will allow the department to move forward on its initiatives, with the overarching goal of ensuring Canada's veterans receive the respect, support, care, and economic opportunities they deserve.

Thank you so much for being here today, and thank you so much for your hard work on this committee. It is greatly appreciated.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Thank you, Minister.

We'll start our first round with six minutes.

Mr. Brassard.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister, for being here today to speak about the supplementary estimates. I'll get right into it.

As part of your request, there's $6.273 million going towards opening new service offices for hiring case managers. I know that you did say in your presentation that you expect a 25:1 ratio. Can you break that down in terms of cost? Do you have the ability to do that for us in terms of what that means per case?

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

That's a very difficult number. It's part of the changes that we made since coming into budget 2016. Again, it's about reopening the nine offices that were closed under the former administration. We have now opened five of those. On the commitment to hire back staff, roughly one third of the front-line staff were let go under the former administration. We've begun the process of hiring back. In fact, we've hired back 325 front-line workers, and we're going to be getting all the way to 400. For an exact breakdown of the staffing component and how that works to get to a 25:1 ratio, I can pass it along to General Natynczyk for more detail.

3:35 p.m.

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

Thanks very much for the question, sir.

I don't have the detail of all the breakdowns that you're talking about in terms of how many are in the offices and the resources required for all of the case managers. Are you looking for, veteran by veteran, what the average cost is per case manager?

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Well, what they—

3:35 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

If that's the case, we'll have to take that question under advisement and come back.

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

That's precisely what I'm looking for. Under this allocation, how much it would cost per veteran based on the numbers that you present here, as well as the opening of the nine offices that the minister has spoken about?

The other thing I want to ask about is the $5.615 million going towards processing benefit applications following changes to the new Veterans Charter in 2016. Just so I'm clear, that's not to deal with the amount that goes towards the benefits. That's actually for staff to process it. How do you come up with that number for the processing?

3:40 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

Sir, we have to go back and actually look at all of the case files for the increase in the earnings loss benefit. We're actually bringing on casual staff and others, because as of October 1, 2016, the earnings loss benefit was to go from 75% to 90%. We're looking at all of those files. It's in the order of—

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

These are personnel costs, then, Mr. Natynczyk—

3:40 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

Correct.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

—to go back and look at those files.

3:40 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

Exactly. Following us today—

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Are we hiring more people to do that, then? How do you—

3:40 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

For a case like that where we have a requirement for short-term reinforcement, we would have casual or temporary folks come in to assist us, but while we have the adjudication of new files coming in, we're finding on a lot of files new applicants are coming in with these changes to our benefits and they are welcomed, as the minister has mentioned. Concurrently, we have to go and look at the files that we currently have and determine what the increase is in terms of the earnings loss benefit. Similarly, when we do the disability award for April 1, 2017, we'll be looking at in the order of 50,000 to 60,000 files and looking at the disability award increases.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

If you're hiring part-time or temporary people—I just need a simple answer—are you confident that you're going to be able to find people who are qualified to go back and look at these files and deal with them to the extent that they require?

3:40 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

Sir, we will only bring in folks who are qualified. In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, we have a lot of great folks who have been with the department or—

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

You're talking about external hires, though, coming in, not those who are working there right now.

3:40 p.m.

Gen Walter Natynczyk

Correct.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Okay.

Minister, with respect to your mandate letter, how many of the 23 requests made of you by the Prime Minister have you completed up to this point?

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

My review of the Prime Minister's mandate letter states that I have 15 mandate letter items to complete.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

How many of those items have you completed at this point?

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

We have completed six to date.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

John Brassard Conservative Barrie—Innisfil, ON

Of the estimates that are requested here, how many more do you anticipate that you're going to be able to complete of the number indicated in the mandate letter?