moved that Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today in this House on behalf of our veterans. They have defended our values throughout the world and deserve the support of the government to ensure that, when they face difficult times upon their return—I am thinking of our veterans in the modern era— they are given the appropriate assistance, especially if they are injured.
Today, we will continue studying the important Bill C-55, which is at second reading. Passage of this bill means a great deal to our veterans. The government has agreed to provide $2 billion to come to the assistance of our veterans. I am thinking, among others, of the veterans in the modern era, those returning from Afghanistan with injuries. It is our responsibility to ensure that, should they have this misfortune, they at least do not have financial difficulties in future.
What are the statistics? We provide services to approximately 140,000 veterans. Of this number, 65,000 are veterans of World War II or the Korean War. The average age of the veterans of these wars is 87. We also provide services to approximately 67,000 veterans who served after the Korean War and whose average age is 57. These include modern-day veterans who are around 20, 25 or 30 years old and who are returning from Afghanistan.
As you may expect, these modern-day veterans have different needs than those who served in World War II or the Korean War, whose average age is 87, as I just mentioned. Why do they have different needs? They are young and, when they return wounded, their objective is to return to civilian life and to find a new job that fits their new reality—I am referring to any physical or psychological injuries they may have. The services we provide to them must therefore take into account this new reality that did not exist before.
What were our veterans receiving before? In the past, veterans received a disability pension, medical benefits, of course, to ensure that they could live independently, and long-term care, depending on their needs in this regard.
Today, our “new” veterans, our modern-day veterans, have completely different needs. In 2005, Parliament, in its wisdom, passed a new veterans charter. The vote was unanimous given the new needs. The reality of these individuals is different; they want to be rehabilitated, return to civilian life and continue to live a full life, and we provided a range of new services related to this new reality.
Despite the fact that this new charter was passed unanimously, we told our veterans and the associations representing them that the charter would be an evolving one. In fact, we have been listening and have now determined, based on the experiences of those who have come home wounded, that there are problems with the new charter that must be fixed.
Who did we listen to? We listened to the seven associations that represent them. I am referring to the Royal Canadian Legion, the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association and other veterans' groups. We also listened to our veterans themselves and the ombudsman, who shared certain points of view with us. We also listened to parliamentarians who made comments on the changes that are needed. We also listened to our troops in Afghanistan. What is more, I went to Afghanistan where I had the opportunity to listen to what our soldiers had to say about the lump sum payment. I will elaborate on that in a few minutes.
We also listened to suggestions from representatives from standing committees and from the new veterans charter advisory group on changes to be made.
We said it was a living document. The government listened to what it was told and decided to make changes to this charter in order to meet the needs of today's soldiers and veterans.
What changes are we going to make to this new veterans charter? There are three changes, but they will bring in four other changes.
The first change involves income allocation. The basic purpose is to ensure that the veteran participates in a rehabilitation program in order to be able to return to civilian life, hold a new job taking any handicap into account, and continue to live a full life. A modern-day veteran returning from Afghanistan injured and participating in the rehabilitation program, will receive an allowance equivalent to 75% of his or her salary. However, a low-income earner receives roughly $26,000, which is not enough. Adjustments had to be made because some of these veterans have families and young children.
This is what Bill C-55 would do. A corporal's salary will now serve as the base for the 75%, meaning that a veteran returning injured from Afghanistan will receive at least $40,000 annually while participating in a rehabilitation program.
The second change concerns the permanent monthly allowance. We found that those coming home seriously injured and unable to return to work were not receiving enough financial help. Currently, soldiers returning home receive between $536 and $1,639 per month, based on the severity of their injuries. Those who cannot return to work because their injuries are too severe will receive an additional $1,000 per month for the rest of their lives.
Soldiers who have been seriously injured and cannot return to work due to the severity of their injuries will receive a minimum of $58,000 per year until the age of 65.
When the legislation was unanimously passed in 2005, the new veterans charter did not take veterans' previous injuries into account. That will be fixed: we will also take those injuries into consideration, which means that 3,500 people will now be receiving between $536 and $1,609 per month, and those amounts have now been indexed. Those 3,500 people will now benefit from this new measure.
I would now like to talk about the lump sum payment. For months a rumour was spreading that the government was giving nothing but a lump sum payment of $276 to injured veterans coming home from Afghanistan. It was also said that they were not being taken care of afterwards. But that is not true. Our veterans receive the first two benefits I spoke about, in addition to a third, the lump sum payment.
According to critics, people were often not able to properly manage the $276 that they received as compensation for their injuries. We checked, and 69% of veterans were satisfied, but 31% were not and would prefer to receive a different form of compensation.
We examined the 31% closely and found that they were often cases of people with mental health issues or people suffering from post-traumatic operational stress.
When I went to Afghanistan, I told our soldiers that I was prepared to change to be more flexible. One of our soldiers asked me to give them as much flexibility as possible. On the plane on the way home, I told myself that I would go further than I had planned to ensure that the needs of our modern-day veterans, who may come back from Afghanistan wounded, are met.
Under our bill, people will now have options with regard to the lump sum payment. If they prefer to receive the amount in cash, they can do so. If another veteran prefers to have the money as an allowance over a certain number of years, we can do that. If he or she wants to have it allocated over 5, 10, 20 or 25 years, it is possible. The veteran will receive an annual payment allocated over the desired number of years. The veteran can also choose to receive a combination of the two types of payments, receiving part of the amount in cash and part allocated over the desired number of years. These three changes in Bill C-55 will serve to better meet the needs of our modern-day veterans.
However, that is not all we did this year. As I mentioned, we have been listening to what our veterans have to say. We have made improvements to the system for those suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In the past, each case was examined individually and not everyone had the right to all services. We decided to change that, and now, anyone who is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis will receive all the services that the department provides to veterans.
Another issue is agent orange. People wanted the eligibility period for the ex gratia payment of $20,000 to be extended by a year. Just before Christmas, I went to Fredericton to confirm that our government is extending the period by one more year. In addition, widows, who were not previously eligible, are now completely eligible for this ex gratia payment of $20,000. I cannot begin to express how happy these people were with our government's decision.
Another priority is to improve the quality and efficiency of the services we provide to our veterans. Among other things, we plan to reduce processing wait times by one-third by the end of March so that we provide services more effectively to our veterans.
We have also developed a new telephone system. Now, 80% of the veterans who call us receive an answer within two minutes.
We will also increase the number of case managers. Veterans returning from Afghanistan want to receive quick responses. We have added 20 case managers in the field, and in less than two weeks, our modern-day veterans can get answers about their rehabilitation plan.
We will also give departmental employees working on the front line more decision-making power, so that they can make quick decisions in providing services to our veterans. And this is just the beginning, since I am committed to paying close attention to the needs of our soldiers and our veterans, and to remaining in close contact with the associations that represent them.
This is a first step, here. My department is the only one to have received an additional $2 billion that was not originally included in the budget so that we can meet the needs of our modern-day veterans and ensure that our programs are tailored to their reality.
We will continue to work with organizations and advisory groups. I also want to thank the parliamentarians in this House. Since there are talks of a possible election in the very near future, we must ensure that our veterans, including our modern-day veterans, do not end up paying the price. This bill must be passed before the budget is passed, so that any injured soldiers and all soldiers becoming veterans have access to the services of the Department of Veterans Affairs and this government.
I thank hon. members for their support.