Long-awaited changes to the New Veterans Charter have been recommended to address gaps in financial support, benefits for the most severely disabled and support for families, but veterans advocates are not yet ready to hang up their spurs.
“The report acknowledges that the New Veterans Charter is not perfect and more still needs to be done,” said Dominion President Tom Eagles of The Royal Canadian Legion. But these recommendations from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs “will provide a significant improvement.”
Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent said, “While I support the majority of the recommendations…I will closely monitor their implementation because a plan is just a plan until it is put into action.”
Many recommendations address financial issues identified as a priority by the Veterans Consultation Group, representing 20 veterans’ advocacy organizations, the largest of which is The Royal Canadian Legion. The top financial concerns raised by the Legion and veterans ombudsman were also addressed.
If the federal government fully adopts these recommendations:
• The most severely disabled veterans would receive financial benefits for life, and a portion would be transferable to surviving spouses after death.
This addresses the plight of the most seriously disabled whose earnings loss benefits cease at age 65, who have not qualified for allowances or supplements and who were permanently disabled before qualifying for military pensions. For the permanently disabled, “every aspect of their lives is permanently affected,” said the report. “Government support must be equal to this sacrifice and be offered to veterans and their families for the rest of their lives.”
• Reservists would be entitled to the same benefits and support as veterans of the regular forces.
This addresses a long-standing inequity of basing earnings loss benefits on a deemed salary equating to $24,300 for part-time reservists of any rank versus a base of $41,600—the salary of a corporal—for full-time regular forces, as calculated in 2013 by the Veterans Ombudsman.
• The disability award would be raised to more adequately reflect civil court awards.
In 2013, the civil award maximum was $342,000, compared to a disability award cap of $298,588 (raised in 2014 to $301,275.26).
• The earnings loss benefit would increase to 85 per cent from 75 per cent of pre-release income, with a ceiling of $70,000.
This falls short of the 100 per cent suggested by the Legion and 90 per cent suggested by the Veterans Ombudsman. “We are also concerned [by] the net threshold of $70,000,” said Eagles. “Why this number?”
“If the committee’s intent was to ensure that a veteran’s pre-release standard of living is not reduced during the transition to civilian life or until age 65 [certain wording] requires clarity,” said Parent. “A restrictive interpretation will most probably adversely affect veterans and reduce their income. I do not believe that this was the goal…”
Parent also questioned a recommendation calling for the end of overlap between the Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) and programs provided by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). The report recommends SISIP’s long term disability program be provided solely to veterans medically released for disabilities not related to military service; those released for service-related medical reasons would be covered by the New Veterans Charter.
Our military men and women [need assurance] that when they are placed in harm’s way that they need not worry as to whether or not they will be cared for. – Dominion President Tom Eagles
“The recommendation will require a new process to determine service relationship” at release, said Parent, and could affect provision of vocational rehabilitation to spouses of veterans. “I recommend that an independent review of the dual SISIP Financial Services and VAC income support and vocational rehabilitation programs be initiated to determine their effectiveness,” he said.
Other recommendations addressed issues raised during testimony of dozens of witnesses who appeared before the committee, including advocates, veterans, VAC and Canadian Forces employees and veterans’ families.
Needs of families were addressed in recommendations calling for independent access for families to VAC psychosocial and vocational rehabilitation, financial support for family members who act as primary caregivers to seriously disabled veterans and that Military Family Resource Centres be available to support families during the transition to civilian life.
To further support veterans’ transition, the committee recommends vocational training programs be more flexible and less strictly related to military skills. It also recommended VAC beef up its case manager training and review whether the ratio of one manager to 40 veterans is appropriate.
The report also addressed the hand-off between the military and VAC, recommending seriously disabled veterans not be medically released until in stable condition; their medical records have been transferred to VAC and a case manager is assigned and has established contact; and that healthcare and rehabilitation professionals have been identified in the areas where they plan to live.
A unified list of conditions to be used interchangeably by VAC and the Department of National Defence should be developed, ensuring “to the greatest extent possible” that the service-related condition leading to a veteran’s release from the Forces on medical grounds is one that qualifies for VAC benefits, the report said.
Although Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said it is important to spell out “exactly what is our shared duty, responsibility, mandate, obligation, commitment or covenant to Canadian veterans,” it was not done in this review. Instead, the committee settled “as a starting point” for recommending that the Veterans Bill of Rights be included in the New Veterans Charter as well as a modified version of some wording from the Pension Act. That wording says the act “shall be liberally construed and interpreted” so the “recognized solemn obligation…may be fulfilled.”
“The recommendation enshrines the obligation of the nation to look after those who serve and accords them the benefit of the doubt,” said Eagles. But benefit of the doubt is still a far cry from a social contract or covenant. “Our military men and women [need assurance] that when they are placed in harm’s way that they need not worry as to whether or not they will be cared for.”
The committee said that statement of obligation should provide support for families, priority for the most seriously disabled veterans, career transition support and access to services. “Greater action,” said the report, “would certainly be welcomed.”
Although veterans advocates have pressed for a Charter review every two years, the committee recommends review “by the appropriate parliamentary committees as required.” That’s not good enough, said Eagles. Although supposedly subject to review at any time since its adoption in 2006, “as we have seen, ‘any time’ meant years,” said Eagles. “The Legion does not believe we can rely on the government to revisit ‘as required.’ We have always advocated a biannual review period,” ensuring the Charter is regularly revisited.
For his part, Parent commended the committee for recognizing “Substantive changes are needed to address the deficiencies in veterans’ benefits and services…”
A formal reply from the federal government is expected in September.