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New Minister needs to win back veterans’ trust

With the appointments of Erin O’Toole and Walter Natynczyk, Veterans Affairs Canada now has veterans at both the political and bureaucratic helms. Whether this will help the department ease the tension with Canada’s veterans remains to be seen.

Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole (standing, right) and Deputy Minister Walter Natynczyk (left) visit veterans in the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. [VETERANS AFFAIRS CANADA]

Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole (standing, right) and Deputy Minister Walter Natynczyk (left) visit veterans in the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

O’Toole replaced Julian Fantino as Minister of Veterans Affairs in January, in what Dominion President Tom Eagles of The Royal Canadian Legion described as a “political move.”

“The Legion has great expecta-tions that this government and all political parties will put the past behind and move forward to create an environment where veterans know that this country’s obligation to care for them when they need it will be met,” Eagles said in a news release.

While some advocates welcomed appointments of veterans who are well-versed in military culture and veterans’ issues, others said it doesn’t matter who sits in those chairs, as they get their marching orders from the Prime Minister’s Office.

But both have track records in caring for serving members and veterans. O’Toole was a Royal Canadian Air Force captain who served as tactical navigator aboard Sea King helicopters out of 12 Wing in Shearwater, N.S., and served as a reservist when he launched his law career. He has been a long-time Legion member and is a founder of the True Patriot Love Foundation, which is dedicated to funding support programs for serving members, veterans and their families.

Retired general Natynczyk, chief of defence staff from 2008 to 2012, told a forum in November that his appointment gives him the “chance to serve all those great veterans who showed us what right looked like, and all those great men and women who, on my watch, got wounded. I’m there for them. I’m there for their families.”

The pair now has the task of rebuilding veterans’ trust, which took a blow just days before the auditor general’s fall report was issued. Fantino and National Defence Minister Rob Nicolson announced $200 million to improve mental health services to serving members and veterans, including a new operational stress injury clinic, expanding mental health education, digitizing records, acquiring new technology, beefing up peer support programs, funding research and trying out extending veterans’ access to military family resource centres.

Number-crunching revealed only about $19 million will be spent over the next five or six years, the remainder over decades. Thus the auditor general’s report was delivered to an already skeptical veterans audience.

The task of rebuilding veterans’ trust begins with how well the department addresses recommen-dations in the auditor general’s report, as well as how—and if—it makes substantive changes to the New Veterans Charter as recommended in the June report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.

While noting Veterans Affairs does a good job with short-term rehabilitation programs, the auditor general’s report criticized the complexity of the process to apply for disability benefits; the length of time the department takes to decide if a veteran is eligible; as well as the delay in delivering mental health services.

The department fell short of its goal to provide decisions to 80 per cent of applicants within 16 weeks of the date the department considers the application to be complete. “This means that 733 veterans did not receive a decision within the 16-week standard,” said the report. Additionally, it points out, veterans start counting from the moment they contact the department, not when VAC deems the application complete.  From the veterans’ perspective, it takes 32 weeks for 80 per cent of veterans to receive a decision, “due in part to the barriers veterans must overcome to complete the application process.” As well, many have already waited months before asking for help.

The auditor general’s report noted the proportion of VAC clients with mental health conditions has increased to 12 per cent in 2014 from two per cent in 2002. The department estimated it spent half a billion dollars on mental health programs, but the report noted a lack of means to assess if its mental health strategy matches veterans’ needs.

The report made a number of recommendations for Veterans Affairs, National Defence and
the Canadian Armed Forces, including analyzing VAC’s benefits application and review processes; facilitating timely access to psychological and psychiatric assessments; and developing certain performance measures.

In its response, VAC said it is “exploring the potential for new decision models that would support faster, evidence-informed decisions by simplifying the processes and practices associated with the adjudication of certain disability claims.…” A web portal is being developed to capture and track the time required for disability assessments. VAC will continue to work with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board to analyze processes and amend policies. And the department will add performance measures in the new mental health strategy.

Meanwhile, veterans and their advocates await action on four substantive recommendations from the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs’ report. Although Fantino announced steps on non-monetary and in-house items in September, he said “further due diligence” was needed for the more serious recommendations. Those include ensuring the most severely disabled veterans receive financial support for life; that reservists be entitled to the same benefits as regular forces members; that disability awards (lump-sum payments) be raised to reflect civil court awards; and the earnings loss benefit be calculated on 85 per cent of pre-release income, up from 75 per cent.

The Legion wants action prior to release of the federal budget, now delayed until April. “The government is stalling and we need them to act now,” it said in announcing a letter-writing campaign to pressure the government.

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent chimed in, saying a “whole-of-government approach must be taken.” He also urged veterans to write to MPs and cabinet ministers, adding if not addressed in the 2015 budget “change will not happen for several more years.”


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