Evidence of meeting #6 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 care.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

General  Retired) Walter Natynczyk (Deputy Minister, Department of Veterans Affairs
Bernard Butler  Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Commemoration, Department of Veterans Affairs
Michel Doiron  Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Delivery Branch, Department of Veterans Affairs

11 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

I'd like to call the meeting to order.

Good morning, everybody. Pursuant to Standing Order 81(4) we are considering the main estimates 2016-17 today, including vote 1 under the Department of Veterans Affairs, vote 1 under the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, and vote 5 under the Department of Veterans Affairs. These were referred to the committee on Tuesday, February 23, 2016.

At the same time we will be discussing the minister's mandate, and if time permits, the committee will move in camera to discuss further business.

I'd like welcome the Honourable Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs.

Minister, this your first time appearing in front of the committee. On behalf of the committee, I'd like to congratulate you on your position and welcome you here today.

Minister, you have the floor for 10 minutes, then we'll start with questions after that.

April 12th, 2016 / 11 a.m.

Calgary Centre Alberta

Liberal

Kent Hehr LiberalMinister of Veterans Affairs

Thank you for that welcome, and congratulations to my parliamentary colleagues on being appointed to this committee. The work we will do together here is very important and especially meaningful to many of you around the table.

Mr. Clarke deserves our greatest thanks for his military service and for that of his brother. Ms. Romanado has two sons who are currently serving. Mr. Kitchen's father and brother served in the forces, and Mr. Bratina's son will shortly be a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Ms. Mathyssen has been a long-standing advocate on behalf of veterans.

It's an honour and privilege to be named Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, and to work alongside members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, veterans, and their families. I understand the challenges a person faces when tragedy strikes, when injury and illness take their toll. I myself would not be here today without the support of others as well as help from various levels of government. The peace, tranquillity, and freedom I enjoy every day is because of the sacrifices that have been made by veterans, and I hope to make a difference in their lives. My mission is to reduce complexity, close the seam, and rationalize benefits for veterans and their families. We will improve support and services, and always focus on care, compassion, and respect.

The Prime Minister has given me an ambitious mandate to provide financial security and independence, education and employment opportunities, and better mental and physical rehabilitation for Canada's veterans.

With the co-operation of the Minister of National Defence, we will close the seam between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs. We will also strive for excellence in all services we deliver, setting veterans' well-being as the objective of everything we do. My mandate letter provides a good road map, and we are listening to veterans' associations and stakeholders, who will help ensure we meet the needs of veterans. We are serious about consulting with veterans and veterans' stakeholders. We don't tell veterans what they need. We ask them what they need. To that end, six stakeholder advisory groups are being set up and meetings with various groups will be held over the next while. These advisory groups are one of the mechanisms we use for stakeholders to give me advice and suggestions. To better support veterans where they live, budget 2016 proposes to reopen and staff offices in Charlottetown, Sydney, Corner Brook, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, Brandon, Prince George, and Kelowna, while opening an additional office in Surrey. We will also expand outreach to veterans in the north by working with local partners.

Budget 2016 also proposes to hire additional case managers to reduce the veteran to case manager ratio to an average of 25:1. Case managers represent the first line of intervention to help with the rehabilitation process and to coordinate referrals to health care providers. Reducing the client to case manager ratio will help veterans make a successful transition to civilian life. To implement these measures, budget 2016 proposes to provide $78.1 million over five years, starting in 2016-17.

I would like to mention that while face-to-face interactions are great, it's clear veterans also want to do business and interact with us on their terms. We have seen a rapid increase in the number of people who have registered to use our secure online access tool, My VAC Account. There are now 32,000 registrants, a tenfold increase since 2012. We are making significant investments to ensure the financial security and independence of veterans with disabilities and their families as they make the transition to civilian life. The sum of $1.6 billion has been set aside so that over the next five years disabled veterans and their families will receive more money. This includes increasing the value of the disability award for injuries and illness caused by service to a maximum of $360,000, indexing this amount to inflation and paying it retroactively to all veterans who have received this award since 2006, increasing the earnings loss benefit to replace 90% of an eligible veteran's military salary, expanding access to the permanent impairment allowance to better support veterans with career-limiting service-related injuries, and renaming it the career impact allowance to reflect the intent of the program.

We will conduct a veteran financial benefit review to simplify benefits and determine where the gaps remain and which programs are less than fully effective to meet the needs of veterans and their families.

This review is central to determining the context for the next phase of financial benefits, including the option of a pension for life. Veterans associations at the last stakeholder summit told us to take the time to get this right, and that's exactly what we intend to do.

Similarly, we need to take action beyond financial benefits. This includes veteran education and career transition initiatives, spousal training, mental health, and suicide prevention, among others. All of these initiatives are important in helping veterans find their new normal.

Homelessness has become a significant issue in Canada and it affects the veteran population as well. We have created a priority secretariat that will examine three priority areas, one of which is addressing veteran homelessness through more support for the homeless and those at risk. Through the secretariat, Veterans Affairs is developing a homeless strategy in collaboration with partners and stakeholders that will identify ways of improving existing policies and programs. We will tie our efforts to the whole-of-government approach to ensure all Canadians, including veterans, have better access to affordable housing. Budget 2016 has proposed to invest an additional $111.8 million over two years.

Mental health has always been the challenge, but it has been long overlooked in military culture. The combat mission in Afghanistan took a huge toll on our troops. Over a quarter of the troops who deployed now receive some sort of assistance from Veterans Affairs. The public discourse on mental health encouraged many more veterans from numerous peacekeeping missions to come forward. We're also seeing veterans from as far back as the Second World War reaching out to get help. We have the medical research, and now it's time to do something about it. We will create two new centres of excellence, one of which will specialize in mental health.

Commemorating the service and sacrifices of Canada's veterans and those who paid the ultimate price is a key pillar of Veterans Affairs. We will remember the service and sacrifice of those who have served by providing easier access to the funeral and burial program. Through budget 2016 we'll expand program eligibility to more families of lower-income veterans. We will do this by increasing the estate exemption from approximately $12,000 to approximately $35,000 and will apply an annual cost-of-living adjustment moving forward.

We will continue the community war memorial program by merging it with the commemorative partnership program and by making the overall application process easier.

On July 1 we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, both in France and in St. John's, Newfoundland, to recognize this tragic day for Newfoundlanders. Next year we will recognize the centennial anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge.

As we recognize these important anniversaries and honour our military and veterans, I ask for your collaboration and support so that we may advance realistic and prompt action on our mandate. It is imperative we meet the needs of veterans in the most effective and efficient manner possible, all the while doing it with care, compassion, and respect.

Finally, I want to thank not only the esteemed public servants beside me today, but those across the country in back offices who work tirelessly to provide top service for our veterans.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Thank you.

We will begin our first round of questioning with six minutes, and the first questions will come from Ms. Wagantall.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Thank you, Minister, for being here today. I deeply appreciate it. I appreciate as well that everyone around this table is focused on making the lives of our veterans and their families better, and I look forward to working together to make that happen.

I have a couple of questions, specifically on the mandate letter and some of the items that there's an intention to deal with at some point in time. One of the priorities identified in the mandate letter is to create two new centres of excellence in veterans' care, including one with a specialization in mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, and related issues for both veterans and first responders. This is not addressed at this point in the budget.

Can you give me an idea of what the timeline is on this?

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

You also know that I am the associate minister of National Defence. As the mandate letter indicates, we are supposed to look at this in a broad fashion. We are going to look at how we can serve both the military and our veteran community and first responders. We are taking that approach. I am sitting down with the Minister of National Defence on many issues, on closing the seam, as well as getting our veterans who are leaving the service better support in the transition phase. To incorporate that, that will be part of our centre of excellence. We have to look at a great many locations around this country where the centre of excellence can best be housed. We have to look at where the research is currently being done and where we have those with the ability to provide these services to the members.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Just briefly then, we are looking at two centres of excellence. I appreciate that we have volumes of veterans in some places more than others. I am from the west, from Saskatchewan, and I am concerned about what the thinking is as far as how those centres of excellence would serve individuals who aren't close to them.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

We are working through that process.

My mandate is to create two new centres of excellence in veterans care, as indicated, including one with a specialization in mental health and post-traumatic stress. We now have up to 30% of the veterans returning from the Afghan theatre who are identified with post-traumatic stress. It's imperative.

The research is coming forward. We need to find how this can be best appropriated to the communities and get those who need it the help they need. I will point out that we have moved on some key initiatives that will also support this: re-staffing in the Veterans Affairs office and allowing our case managers to get down to a reasonable ratio of an average of 25:1.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

I appreciate that as well.

This whole question of PTSD and mental health is a significant factor that we need to deal with. The whole question of a suicide prevention strategy coming forward also isn't addressed at this point in time. As a government, we are also facing dealing with the Supreme Court's mandate to come up with an assisted dying legislation. I understand one of the recommendations at this point is to open up that access to people with depression, which deeply concerns me for our veterans when we are looking at, on the one hand, preventing suicide and, on the other hand, making assisted dying more available, beyond the scope of what was suggested.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I don't want to speak to another minister's department. I will say that we are going to concentrate on making veterans' lives better through care, compassion, and respect, and giving them the tools they need to build their lives, both in financial ways as well as in the support they need to build their lives.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

Wouldn't you say, then, that this should be a very high priority for us at this point in time?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I would say my entire mandate letter is a priority.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

You do have to prioritize, right? It's a huge task.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I think we did prioritize.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

This isn't in there right now.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I agree, but we did deliver on six of the 15 mandate letter items. We ensured financial security as well as working on some of the components that are going to assist in mental health, reopening the nine offices and two additional offices. That will allow a point of contact for people who are struggling to come in, get the help they need, and get connected to case managers and people. I will remind the member that under the former government, 800 front-line service delivery specialists were cut. That was too far, too fast. Our case managers and people trying to help veterans were getting backlogged, and veterans were delayed from getting the care and help they needed.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Cathay Wagantall Conservative Yorkton—Melville, SK

I understand what you are saying. I think what's important, though, is that we make sure that these services are also.... Seeing the word “centralized”, with two centres.... Our veterans are all over the country, so I just want to make sure that the services are available to all of our veterans to the same degree, regardless of where in the country they live. I know that this is an issue in my province, where mental health support is needed and it's not there. We travel in our province to get help for pretty well anything. We have an opportunity for another office there; I understand that. My concern is for the front-line work.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Thank you very much.

Our next question will come from Mr. Bratina.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Bratina Liberal Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Minister, it's so great to have you here.

Just before I ask you a direct question or two, I would mention that in my previous life as mayor I wanted to reacquaint Hamiltonians with their military heritage. To that end we renamed the war memorial park, Gore Park, Veterans' Place. That was done by General Maisonneuve in 2006, and then last year the complete redesign was completed and Geordie Elms was there to help celebrate that. I found out this morning that the redesign of our Veterans' Place has just won a national architectural award for effective design of a public space. So you know that the concerns of veterans are well in hand in the city of Hamilton, and certainly by us here on the committee.

Having said that, I'd like to point out that budget 2016 states that the calculation of the earnings loss benefit will be amended. Can you clarify the changes that have been made to the base pay specifications and how that will impact those currently in receipt of the benefit and those who will eventually receive it?

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I was just in Hamilton visiting our front-line staff and our team there, who are grateful for the re-staffing efforts. They're looking forward to the conversation I'm going to be having with the Minister of National Defence on closing the seam. They presented some very good ideas for us on how we at VAC and the Department of National Defence can work better. I can attest to the great work going on in Hamilton.

If we look at the changes we've made to the earnings loss benefit it was really something that had been called for by the veterans' community since the implementation of the new Veterans Charter in 2005, and some of the gaps that they saw emerging. Moving it from 75% of a pre-release salary to 90% of what that salary would be ensures that veterans of all categories, whether they be a private, corporal, or otherwise, will have more financial security. They will be able to build their lives. Really it's more in correlation with what other programs of service delivery are in other areas around workmen's compensation and the like.

We thought to ourselves: why is an individual, a man or a woman who has served in our military and who has suffered a debilitating injury, being penalized in such a fashion? Of course, in moving it to the 90% they are also still allowed to tie into all the other programming that Veterans Affairs Canada is providing, whether it be educational, supports for families, or retraining. We sense that this is a move to ensure financial security and it works for all levels of those who find themselves in the program. They'll have more money in their pockets to support their families, to build their lives, and find a meaningful place to reach their new normal.

But maybe General Natynczyk could augment that with any further details on the exact numbers.

11:20 a.m.

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

Minister, you're spot on.

I would just say, again, this is in response to something that the ombudsman had put forward after doing a lot of research and consultation. We're really pleased to be able to deliver this as quickly as possible in the mandate. It's going to have a huge effect not only on veterans but on their families, and give them that sense of confidence that while they're going through the vocational rehab programs their financial security is being addressed.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Bob Bratina Liberal Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

The overriding issue for us here now is studying service delivery. How do we get these things, and how do the veterans become aware of them?

We've heard about difficulties in transition from the Department of National Defence to Veterans Affairs Canada. How do we close the seam and address the challenges that veterans face currently with the transition?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

I thank the member for his question because that is identified in my mandate letter and an important one. We've seen gaps emerging over the course of the last number of years, and my work with the Minister of National Defence is described as imperative in moving Veterans Affairs forward.

We have right now many military men and women who know they will be leaving the military, which is a difficult day. Many of these men and women have joined up. It has been part of their family and their blood. It's what they wanted to do with their lives. They wanted to contribute to military service. When that day comes, they deserve our care, compassion, and respect in transitioning them to a place where they can continue to build their lives.

I'm looking forward to that work I'm going to do with Minister Sajjan meeting with the various people in Hamilton and other places across the country. They say right now there are difficulties on case management levels and on front-line staffing. To be able to allow for that early intervention when a man or woman knows they are going to leave the military is not happening. We know we have to do that better to allow them to get their lives established so they can get the financial services they need, as well as help with career transition, employment opportunities, and educational experiences.

We understand this is a huge issue and will comprise much of my work over the next year, or year and a half. I can say we identified some areas where we can go. Are they in practice yet? Not yet.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Neil Ellis

Thank you, Minister.

Ms. Mathyssen.

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Minister. We are very pleased that you are attending our committee meeting, and it is a pleasure to see you.

I have a number of questions, and I hope to get through a significant number of them.

One of the quite disconcerting realities of the last mandate of government was compelling veterans with severe injuries, such as the loss of limbs, to reconfirm every three years that the injury still exists.

Do you have any plans to change that? Obviously that kind of injury doesn't go away, and for a veteran to have to re-file paperwork, and prove over and over again that injury still exists, seems ludicrous.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

You're right. The complex array of services Veterans Affairs provides, as well as trying to have them tailored for each and every veteran, does sometimes entail a large amount of paperwork. We have reduced some of that. We're going to continue going on that path. I know a bit about having to fill out forms. For the provincial government I have to fill out every year that I'm still a C-5 quadriplegic. There's a bit of that in the nature of government, in the way we go about providing services.

That said, I believe General Natynczyk can advise us on a little of the work we've done in this regard, and where we hope to go in the future.