The Quiet Fight: Testing The New Charter

November 6, 2007 by Natalie Salat



Legion service officer Gerry Finlay, in Edmonton.

It’s still early days in the life of the New Veterans Charter, but some initial assessments have crystallized since the government’s overhaul of veterans’ benefits and services took effect April 1, 2006.

Reviews so far have generally been favourable. That said, some concerns about the sweeping legislation persist–predominantly about the charter’s replacement of the monthly disability payments under the old Pension Act. And, given that injured Canadian Forces members have three years in which to return to a service-ready level or be released, the legislation has yet to be truly tested among those with the most severe injuries. “My assessment of the New Veterans Charter is that it seems to be working,” comments Dominion Command Service Bureau Director Pierre Allard, adding that many of those who have been applying for benefits are Canadian Forces members who have been out of the military for a while. The service bureau network handles around 2,000 applications a year, he says, and half of those are for charter benefits and services.

According to Veterans Affairs Canada’s statistics, as of July 31, 3,707 clients had either received or been approved for a disability award, 1,454 had been approved for rehabilitation benefits, 293 had been approved for health insurance and 25 had been approved for job placement.

Allard does note some areas for improvement. One of them is that CF members who are being medically released cannot put their name on the priority appointment list for the public service until they are out of the Forces. “Maybe the public service needs to change its regulations to say that once somebody has a medical release message in their hands–which they should theoretically have three to six months before they’re on their way out the door–then…that person should be able to go on the priority appointment list.” He adds, “Income support could sort of bridge over those persons while they’re waiting.”

Another gap in the charter, says Allard, is the level of earnings loss support that it provides. Under the current provisions, this monthly benefit ensures that a veteran’s income does not fall below 75 per cent of his or her gross pre-release salary while taking part in the charter’s rehabilitation program. If a person is deemed to be totally disabled, the payments continue. The problem, notes the service bureau director, is that the level of payment “does not reflect the fact that people might be receiving pay increases (and promotions) during their lifetime.”

Darragh Mogan, executive director of Veterans Affairs Canada’s service and program modernization task force, says these points are “actively being looked at” by Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson. “It’s one of the minister’s priorities as part of his commitment to a living charter to look at the practical level of support,” he observes. “And the question is a very good one. Is it practical for a private with four children and a spouse to live on 75 per cent of a private’s salary while (they) go through rehabilitation? That’s almost a rhetorical question.”

Some observers also point out that misconceptions remain about who is eligible to receive charter benefits and how the charter’s so-called dual-award system works for compensating disabilities. “(VAC) needs to promote the benefits of the New Veterans Charter more to…those post-Korea, post-WW II,” asserts Gerry Finlay, the Legion’s service officer in Edmonton. “There are a lot of individuals (who served from 1964 to 1972) that are not necessarily aware of the benefits.”

Finlay, who speaks to the soldiers and their families during his weekly visits to the Edmonton Garrison, says the feedback he’s getting “from the front line” is that the charter’s programs are pretty good. But, he notes, there is a “huge misconception” about the one-time lump-sum disability award.

This payment of up to $255,792.25–depending on the severity of the disability–replaces the lifelong monthly payments of old. Finlay comments, “People focus on that lump sum payment (but) it’s not always about that. And once they’re informed more about what (the charter) encompasses–the medications and the treatments, whether they’re physical or psychological–it becomes an eye-opener, not so much the focus of, ‘I only got $25,000 and it’s only one time.’ It’s not necessarily one time. It’s just recognition for that specific injury or illness.”

Nonetheless, the lump sum remains a concern to more than a few service members, says Master Corporal Paul Franklin, a medic who lost both of his legs in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. While he was injured before April 1, 2006, and is therefore receiving a pension, he has talked to many of the seriously injured soldiers who have come back from operations since the charter was put into effect. “All these guys that were injured after April 1 have no faith at all in the system, to the point where there are several guys that are unwilling to sign that paper to get the (lump sum) because they’re afraid that if they sign off on it, they’ll never get anything (else).”

Franklin also notes concerns about giving a $255,000 cheque to a 21-year-old. “Some do (want that) and some will buy a new truck, or snort it, or some guys will try and invest it. Well, for myself, my monthly payments work out to about $2 million over 40 years. How does $250,000 do that? If you do the math, it doesn’t. It only does that if you don’t touch it for 40 years.”

Speaking of those concerns, Mogan says the charter has provisions in place to deal with both. For one thing, he says, financial counselling is available, and “if there’s the apprehension of harm, you get an assessment to make sure that paying a lump sum to an individual is going to add to their good rather than doing any harm.” For CF veterans who will never be able to return to work, he adds, “they will stay at 75 per cent of their salary, indexed upwards until their 65th birthday.”

While Finlay agrees that the “safety net” is there, he says it remains to be seen how it will hold up for the most severely injured veterans from Afghanistan. “That level of clientele has yet to reach our doors.”

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