Work to do

November 3, 2017 by Legion Magazine
Seamus O’Regan at the the Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy, a collaborative approach between the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada in October 2017.
Sharon Adams

Seamus O’Regan, the former television host from Newfoundland and Labrador, was appointed as Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs on Aug. 28, replacing Kent Hehr. There have been some important changes to the New Veterans Charter since the last election that will improve the lives of many disabled veterans, but there is still plenty of hard work ahead for the new minister.

The animosity and distrust that a vocal minority of veterans had for Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) has dissipated, largely due to the reopening of nine district offices, the creation of ministerial advisory groups, the increase in the amount of the disability award (known as the lump sum payment) to $360,000, and the increase of the Earnings Loss Benefit to 90 per cent of pre-release salary.

More goodwill was built in 2017 with the announcement of eight new or enhanced benefits, including a tax-free $1,000 monthly caregiver benefit, an education benefit of up to $80,000, allowing medically released veterans and their families access to all 32 Military Family Resource Centres, new funding for research, and plans for a centre of excellence for mental health care.

But remaining shortcomings may yet rekindle disgruntlement—particularly a lack of movement on re-establishing lifelong pensions. Simply dividing the disability award into monthly payments is not what veterans have in mind when they think of lifelong financial security. The government’s new plan for spreading out payments—promised in the 2017 budget—still had not been announced at press time.

The post-election mandate letter from the prime minister to the Veterans Affairs minister promised a higher standard of service and care. However, delays in disability benefit decisions are the primary complaint to the veterans’ ombudsman, who reports that only 59 per cent of VAC decisions met the department’s standard of 16 weeks. (This does not count the weeks or months veterans may spend gathering information after first contacting the department.)

Veterans still complain about customer-service staff shortages, complex eligibility criteria, difficulties transitioning from military to VAC programs, an “insurance company mentality” in dealings with the department, and worry about financial security past age 82.

Finally, we hope that the change in the name of the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act (popularly known as the New Veterans Charter) to the Veterans Well-being Act is not a harbinger of ideological change. ‘Well-being’ means comfortable, healthy or happy—something all veterans are entitled to be. But well-being also connotes the paternalistic concept of welfare programs that provide only basic physical and material essentials to people in need. Ill, injured and wounded veterans have earned their benefits. Their rehabilitation, reintegration and fair compensation are sacred obligations and should not be subject to minimalistic thinking—even in titles of legislation.

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