After a flurry of announcements trickling out all fall, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn tabled new legislation Nov. 17 to make improvements on the New Veterans Charter as called for by several veterans organizations, including The Royal Canadian Legion.
Called the Enhanced New Veterans Charter Act, the proposed legislation brings together several of the announcements and introduces changes to the administration of the lump sum Disability Award.
Under the new legislation a veteran qualifying for the Disability Award, which is a maximum of $276,000, will be able to choose from receiving the single lump sum; equal annual payments spread out over a number of years of their choice with interest; or a partial lump-sum payment with the balance paid out in annual instalments over any number of years with interest. If a veteran opts to spread out the payments, he or she can still take the remaining sum at any time.
Speaking to the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs earlier that day, Blackburn said, “We did a study of those who have received the lump sum and found that 31 per cent were unhappy with what they received, but 67 per cent were happy. Still, if three in 10 veterans are unhappy, it is a significant number.”
The legislation marks the first changes to the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-Establishment and Compensation Act, known as the New Veterans Charter, since it came into effect in 2006.
“This bill, as a first step, makes great strides in improving the New Veterans Charter and encompasses many of the recommendations made by the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group and the [House of Commons] Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs,” said Legion Dominion President Pat Varga. “The Legion considers that further improvements are needed to the charter on which we look forward to continuing the ongoing dialogue with Minister Blackburn.”
The Legion feels that the department still needs to address the amount of the lump-sum payment. In Canada, general damages awards in law court for disabled workers are $329,000 on average, said Varga. Australian service members receive about $325,000 and in Great Britain the award is almost $1 million.
The improvements brought forward include $2 billion in increased spending which was announced in September.
This includes an additional taxable “catastrophic allowance” of up to $1,000 a month for an expected 500 veterans forced to retire due to service-related injuries; relaxation of eligibility for the permanent impairment allowance for seriously injured veterans, which varies in taxable amounts between $536 to $1,609 monthly—an amount expected to benefit an additional 3,500 veterans; and an increase in the benefit of lost earnings to guarantee a minimum annual income of approximately $40,000 to veterans in rehabilitation, a move expected to benefit 2,320 veterans over the next five years.
The changes go hand-in-hand with spending of $52.4 million over five years on five new initiatives to provide a “legacy of care” to help CF personnel and their families meet the exceptional challenges they face, announced earlier by Blackburn and Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
For injured personnel, there’s a promise to provide barrier-free housing and support services for them and their families close to the rehabilitation centres used by bases in Esquimalt, B.C.; Edmonton; Shilo-Winnipeg in Manitoba; Petawawa, Ont.; Valcartier, Que.; Gagetown, N.B.; and Halifax. The housing will include accessible space, capable of accommodating an electric wheelchair, larger doorways, wheeled ramps, accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Services will include caregiver respite, childcare, and delivery of medical supplies and groceries.
For caregivers of injured personnel, there is a promise to reimburse costs and allow more spouses to qualify for help to upgrade their education. Reimbursing caregivers’ costs directly associated to the care received to a maximum of $100 a day “provides financial support to these incredible people who stand by CF personnel undergoing rehabilitation,” said MacKay.
Eligibility for Veterans Affairs Canada’s spousal education upgrade program was widened to include survivors of CF personnel killed after Oct. 7, 2001, as well as spouses of permanently incapacitated personnel. The program reimburses tuition fees of up to $20,000 for dependants and survivors.
VAC is also adding 20 more case managers and has given case managers more authority to make timely decisions that are critical to recovery and transition to civilian life.
Among the earlier announcements was that veterans suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, may now be eligible for disability benefits, treatments and home-care support. ALS is a fatal neuromuscular disease that causes the degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. U.S. statistics show those in military service are at increased risk for the disease and the U.S. has been giving benefits to veterans with ALS since 2001, but VAC had been awaiting scientific evidence of the connection before adding it to conditions eligible for benefits.
Blackburn told the subcommittee, “Today we are writing a new chapter in the charter. We hope it will be seen that we are listening to veterans and their advocates.”