Thank you very much.
Good afternoon, Chair Ellis and members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
I am pleased to present the 2016-17 supplementary estimates (C) and the 2017-18 main estimates to Parliament on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada.
I'd like to thank the members of the committee for their dedication to veterans' issues, particularly for their recent focus on mental health and their study of service delivery.
Our government is committed to ensuring that eligible veterans, retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police members, and their families have access to the mental health support they need, when and where they need it. No doubt the work of this committee will add to our knowledge and understanding of how we can do better in this regard.
Our government continues to focus on increasing access to mental health care and expanding outreach to ensure improved supports and services for veterans at risk of suicide. That is why I am working closely with my colleague, theMinister of National Defence, to close the seam between our two departments and to ensure a smoother, easier transition for releasing military members.
Turning to the subject of this meeting, the 2016-17 supplementary estimates, I'd like to point out that the largest increases are for the earnings loss benefit and the disability award. Furthermore, the number of disability claims submitted to Veterans Affairs increased by 19% in fiscal year 2015-16. This is a good thing. It means more people are coming forward to get the help they need.
I will now turn to the main estimates for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The Prime Minister charged me with ensuring that we honour the service of our veterans, reduce complexity, and do more to ensure the financial security of Canada's veterans. I can say with pride that we have made lots of progress. The main estimates before you today reflect many of our accomplishments to date. In fact, they reflect a net increase of $1.06 billion over 2016-17. This is nearly 30% more than that in the previous fiscal year. This demonstrates that we have dramatically increased financial security and access to services for veterans and their families, and we are not done yet.
As of April 1, the disability award will be increased from $310,000 to a maximum of $360,000 and will be indexed to inflation. We will issue a top-up payment to anyone who has already received a disability award, meaning more money in the pockets of ill and injured veterans. Furthermore, this change will be retroactive to 2006, when the disability award was first introduced. This demonstrates our commitment to “one veteran, one standard”.
Also beginning this April, changes to the permanent impairment allowance will ensure that veterans are more appropriately compensated for the impact of service-related impairments on their career. The benefit will be renamed the “career impact allowance” to better reflect its intent of assigning different gradients to adequately reflect how an individual might have moved through their career had they not become ill or injured.
Increasing the maximum of the disability award and expanding access to the permanent impairment allowance were recommendations made by the Veterans Ombudsman, Mr. Guy Parent. I always value the ombudsman's feedback, and I am proud to be implementing substantive changes that were recommended to us by the ombudsman. Our ombudsman has indicated that this move has moved the marker forward in regard to access to fair compensation. We will continue to work towards building a veteran-centric model that supports a seamless transition from military to civilian life.
One increase in the operating expenses you will note is for the reopening of Veterans Affairs offices. I am very proud to say that our government has already opened seven of the nine offices closed by the previous government. This May we will reopen the remaining two, plus an additional office in Surrey, British Columbia.
We also expanded outreach to veterans in the north. VAC staff will visit northern communities every month to meet with veterans and their families and to connect them with services and benefits.
Commemorating all the brave men and women who serve is a core responsibility of Veterans Affairs Canada. Honouring the service of our brave soldiers, sailors, and aviators is essential to ensuring that we as a nation never forget their dedication and sacrifice.
The Canada Remembers program keeps alive and promotes an understanding of the achievements of and the sacrifices made by those who served in times of war, military conflict, peacekeeping, and beyond. Our government is investing approximately $11 million to commemorate the 100th anniversaries of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele, as well as the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe raid. We will continue to pay tribute to and acknowledge those who have made Canada the country it is today.
Over the last year and a half we have accomplished a great amount for Canada's veterans. We increased the earnings loss benefit from 75% to 90% of a veteran's pre-release salary. This will be indexed to inflation. This ensures those undergoing rehabilitation have the financial support they need during their recovery.
We've simplified the approvals process for a number of disability claims, such as PTSD and hearing loss, allowing us to respond to more claims faster. In fact, compared to the year before, we made 27% more decisions in the last fiscal year.
We are well on our way to delivering on our commitment to hire 400 new employees, with 381 of them hired to date. This includes 113 new case managers. We are making great progress in reducing the average veteran-to-case-manager ratio from 40:1 to 25:1.
In October we increased the amount of the survivor's estate exemption for the funeral and burial program so that more veterans and their families have access to dignified funerals.
While we have achieved a lot, we recognize that there is much, much more to be done.
We continue to dedicate resources to finding ways to improve the mental health services and supports available to veterans and their families. I know that this is the focus of your current course of study and that there is an increased awareness of this important issue. I maintain that we can always do better, and I recognize that while the majority of veterans receive the mental health support they need, we can do more to reach those who do not. I am looking forward to hearing your recommendations as to how we can continue to improve.
There is still work to be done to develop a lifelong pension, an option for that. We will continue to consult with stakeholders and parliamentarians to develop the best approach.
A crucial area where VAC can and must do better is in delivering timely benefit decisions. We are pursuing this on a number of levels. I am working with the Minister of National Defence to close the gap between National Defence and Veterans Affairs by reducing complexity, overhauling service delivery, and strengthening partnerships.
Veterans Affairs has done an extensive review of its service delivery model with the goal of putting veterans first in programs and services, making things simpler and easier to understand, and facilitating improved access. We consulted widely with veterans, staff, external experts, and Canadians, and we'll publish a final report that outlines key recommendations. We will have a plan to put 90% of the recommendations into action within three years and the full suite of changes in five.
The physical, mental, and financial well-being of our veterans is our overarching goal. Veterans Affairs Canada has done much, and with the estimates delivered today, we will be able to fulfill many of our promises.
Thank you so much.