The cruel shell game government plays with veterans

This piece was first published on the Hill Times website on February 12, 2018.

The new Liberal plan for veterans is all about saving money, yet again, at the expense of veterans.

The more Canadians and veterans learn of the 2019 Liberal programs, the more the confusion and anger grow. How do we survive the dizzying daze induced by trying to understand veterans’ benefits?

First, let’s cut through the thick and misleading rhetoric.

The issue: Injured veterans receiving pre-April 2006 Pension Act benefits collect more in pain and suffering payments than fellow veterans receive under the post-April 2006 New Veterans Charter lump sum program. Veteran outcry prompted the Liberals to announce a completely revised program to come into effect April 2019.

Government talking points:  The New Veterans Charter and the April 2019 plan are superior because they offer more than just pain and suffering payments. They both provide medical and vocational rehabilitation, education, income loss, and medical care. The April 2019 plan claims to “re-establish” lifelong pensions.

The reality: All injured Canadian Forces veterans, under all three plans essentially have access to the same income loss, medical rehabilitation and care, as well as vocational rehabilitation and education (if not too disabled).  We, therefore, can set those benefits aside and compare pain, suffering, and incapacity payments amongst the three programs.

The bottom line: Substantial differences between the three programs are striking. Pain, suffering, and incapacity are the most prolific veterans’ sacrifice on behalf of Canada and Canadians. And compensation for sacrifice is grossly unfair depending not upon date of injury, or release from the military but based upon arbitrary dates of application.

As the table shows, disability compensation has become increasingly miserly under each successive program introduced by the Liberals in 2005 and 2019. Veterans Affairs in a series of hypothetical scenarios claims that veterans will receive considerably more under the post April 2019 plan vs the New Veterans Charter. Furthermore, the government announcement asserts that the most disabled will benefit the greatest.

I was far too hasty (and confused) in swallowing this aspect of the announcement. Upon reflection, there is much deception here.

Setting aside the pre-2006 plans for now, when comparing the pre and post-April 2019 plan, both programs offer an incapacity allowance of roughly similar amounts. The pre-April 2019 New Veterans Charter is taxable at $1828/month while the post-April 2019 plan is tax free at $1,500/month. What is missing from the Liberal 2019 plan is the supplement currently available which pays $1,120/month. The Liberal 2019 plan has no equivalent. This supplement vanishes into fiscally thin air.

Under the April 2019 plan, the controversial lump sum still exists but veterans can instead a payment of up to $1150/month, depending upon level of disability and gender. Why a maximum of $1150? Veterans, including me, feared the government would merely offer the lump sum dissected and distributed over time, an option already in existence.

Veterans’ fears were justified. A VAC Q&A document indicates that the monthly amount up to $1150 “was determined by converting the value of the maximum lump sum of $360,000 into an age-adjusted monthly payment”.

Disturbingly, since “sex is a factor of life expectancy…the calculation used to convert lump sum amounts into monthly amounts must incorporate mortality rates which are sex dependent.” According to the 2019 plan, the lifetime payout to male and female veterans may be the same for similar disabilities, but females apparently will receive lower monthly payments. Female veterans should not be penalized for longevity. Their daily pain is no less nor should their suffering be amortized at a lower amount merely because they live longer.

The big picture: in terms of pain, suffering, and incapacity payments most if not all veterans who qualify for such benefits under the April 2019 plan will receive less than under programs currently available. The maximum disabled veterans under the current plan can receive is $35,392/year taxable plus a tax free lump sum of $365,400. Under the announced 2019 plan, the same veteran would receive a choice between $31,800/year tax free or the same lump sum plus $18,000/year tax free.

Additional existing and future benefits have highly restrictive criteria.  Only 152 veterans have received the Critical Injury Benefit out of more than 62,000 recipients of the lump sum. Government estimates only six veterans per year will qualify going forward.

As for caregiver benefits, less than five per cent of the most disabled veterans receive the current program. The soon-to-be introduced new and improved Caregiver Relief Benefit will nearly triple that number but still represent less than 15% of seriously disabled veterans and less than two per cent of injured veterans in receipt of the lump sum.

Undoubtedly the starkest differences emerge when the New Veterans Charter and the post-April 2019 plan are both compared with the pre-2006 Pension Act programs. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, during the 2015 election campaign, promised to return to the lifelong pension. In fact the mandate letters for both former disgraced Minister Hehr and current Minister Seamus O’Regan commit to “re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans”. However, the 2019 plan offers only 40% of the amount provided by the Pension Act.

Neither the 2006 nor the 2019 plans offer additional amounts for spouses and children, unlike the pre-2006 Pension Act. Furthermore, the manner that government determines disability levels has been far less generous post-2006 than pre-2006. As a result, the average monthly payment for pain and suffering under the 2019 plan could be less than 20% of the amount awarded under the pre-2006 Pension Act.

Government claims it is investing $3.6 billion in the post-April 2019 plan. However, it is unclear if this is new money or merely flimflam, rolling over money from existing programs into new programs. Sadistically procrastinating to bring about change, government has been able to transfer more than $1 billion over the past five years once paid to World War II veterans and their survivors towards the slow trickle of program changes for Canadian Forces veterans.

Veterans and their families have sacrificed much so that Canada and Canadians can prosper in safety and security. It is unclear what Ottawa is sacrificing to recognize the lifelong pain and suffering veterans endure on a daily basis.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability and author, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer, and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.

Liberals’ new ‘pension for life’ for veterans fails to live up to campaign promises

This piece was first published on the CBC website on January 2, 2018.

Canada’s military veterans who endure disabling injuries were hoping for a Christmas present: a fulfilment of the Liberal campaign promise to “re-establish lifelong pensions as an option for injured veterans.” Instead, the government merely resurrected ghosts of Christmases past with a hodgepodge of benefits that amount to recycled, remodeled and repackaged programs that already exist.

The proposed pension for life — which was promised as an alternative to the lump-sum payments introduced under the New Veterans Charter of 2006 — is a clear reduction of the lofty scheme that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally promised while he was campaigning.

Instead of the Liberal commitment of offering lifelong pensions for veterans applying for disability assistance after 2006, veterans will have to wait until April 2019 to choose between the existing lump sum and a new lifelong pension that, when all is said and done, will pay far less than one half of the pre-2006 pension.

Compensation for injuries

Some background first. When Canadian Forces members suffer disabling military injuries and are released from the Forces, Veterans Affairs Canada is legally obligated to provide both pain and suffering non-taxable compensation, as well as taxable compensation for lost income. This is no different than court awards or most provincial workplace insurance programs. Historically, veterans just happen to be the first group of Canadians compensated for lifelong injuries.

Canada has been paying lifelong pensions in some form to those suffering military injuries since the War of 1812.  For over 200 years, military injures have been honoured with not only lifelong pensions for the disabled soldier, but also with additional amounts for spouses and children, which around 60,000 injured veterans continue to receive as part of their pre-2006 pensions. The April 2019 lifelong pension, however, does not offer any amounts for family members.

It was the Liberals who introduced the legislation for the New Veterans Charter in 2005 that took away the lifelong pension for veterans. This was replaced with a one-time lump sum as part of a patchwork and rebranding of already existing programs.

Since that time, the lump sum has come under fierce criticism. Since it also pays nothing extra for family members, the lump sum equates to what was paid out in as little as seven years under the pre-2006 lifelong pension. Other programs under the New Veterans Charter have been notoriously difficult to access. Widespread calls under the Conservatives to change these programs were met with bureaucratic intransigence and bizarre political indifference.

The April 2019 programs play a similar shell game with the customary excessive rhetoric. Under a new “holistic package,” injured veterans will be given a choice between the current lump sum to compensate for pain and suffering, which pays up to a maximum of $360,000, or a tax-free monthly payment of up to $1150. (There is an additional monthly allowance of up to $1500 for the most severely disabled veterans, but the overwhelming majority of veterans under the April 2019 programs will not receive additional pain and suffering payments. New applicants who do will still receive less than before under the new April 2019 plan.)

This “pension for life” option fails to live up to the Trudeau promise on many levels. Like the lump sum, not only does the pension option not pay any additional amounts for family members, the average monthly payment is expected to be around $200. Compare that to the pre-2006 pension that pays up to $2733 monthly, with an average of $680, plus amounts for spouses and children.

Veterans will be seething with betrayal learning that other existing programs will be shuffled around and renamed under the April 2019 plan but remain substantially unchanged with one exception. A previous supplemental allowance for severe disability has been eliminated. It paid just over $1100 monthly, the same amount as the Liberals’ new “pension for life option.”

Admittedly, the minutiae of disability programs — especially those for veterans — tend to glaze over the most astute eyes. So, imagine how overwhelming these changes must be for already struggling disabled veterans, many of whom never completed high school. A great number of them had long been Conservative supporters, but disaffection with the New Veterans Charter led many to hope for great things under the Trudeau Liberals.

Lump sum option

It should also trouble us that the lump sum will still be an option for younger veterans. Retired General Walter Natynczyk, who is now the top bureaucrat at Veterans Affairs leading the charge on the April 2019 program, said in 2010 “Some younger veterans took their cash and bought Porsches, boats and souped-up trucks, and now they are broke. It’s always hard when you have people who are 21, 22 and 23 years old.”

Not only is it likely that veterans will be severely anxious due to the complexity of the new program and its nebulous criteria for benefits, but they might be rightfully distressed by the fact that government employees disabled in a flying accident, for example, and RCMP can continue to apply for the pre-2006 lifelong pension, but veterans, for whom the program was designed nearly a century ago, cannot.

A promise is sacred for veterans. Veterans promised to put on a uniform to lose their lives for us if need be. We must fulfil our promises to repay that debt in real dollars, not with political platitudes, campaign chicanery and bureaucratic betrayal.

How Seamus O’Regan can do the right thing

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on September 4, 2017.

Removing Minister Kent Hehr from Veterans Affairs Canada was the right thing to do. The new minister, Seamus O’Regan, must do better.

Just six days prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commemorated the calamitous losses Canadians suffered on the beaches of Dieppe 75 years ago. In the midst of a downpour, the prime minister folded his umbrella, noting that enduring rain is nothing compared to the bullets of war.

Such apparently unscripted compassion has been the hallmark of Trudeau’s repeated promises to make things right for Canada’s veterans. Sadly, nothing has meaningfully changed in the department mandated to care for them. Its persistent affliction: a profound cultural disconnection from veterans’ needs in the only federal department heaquartered outside of Ottawa—in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

The best Hehr could muster in his almost 22 months as minister was an unimaginative barrage of talking points written by an insensitive senior bureaucracy. When challenged by media or veterans, he was prone to outbursts of self-righteous parroting or to abruptly end town halls, hastily heading for the door.

One would expect that the tragic circumstances that led to Minister Hehr becoming a quadriplegic and his ensuing struggles would have engendered sympathy, compassion, and a sense of urgency to make real and substantive changes at Veterans Affairs.

Unfortunately, he frequently appeared insincere and indifferent to the suffering of veterans. He preferred to let former chief of defence staff Walter Natynczyk run the show as the department’s deputy minister.

Natynczyk, like the veterans ombudsman Guy Parent, spent their adult lives in uniform then glided into privileged positions to serve bureaucratic commandments. They could not and have not been able to understand the urgency of needed changes that would improve the lives of veterans. Likewise they have sidelined and/or berated those that voice their concerns, especially via the media. Like all military members, they come from a dysfunctional military culture that views exercising freedom of expression as a betrayal of Canada and the uniform.

Minister O’Regan likewise could bring assets or emotional baggage to the job. His struggles with alcoholism may offer personal insight into the single biggest health obstacle faced by both serving members and veterans: mental health.

If Minister O’Reagan and the Trudeau government truly wish “real change” as they promised, then cultural change at the department must be their focus. Contrary to endless bureaucratic protestations, unilaterally and heartlessly switching from lifelong pensions to one-time lump sums for disabled veterans was a callous, cost-saving scheme. The proof lies in the dithering on the Liberal campaign promise to return to lifelong pensions: it will cost too much to switch back.

Replacing Guy Parent and Walter Natynczyk are necessary if the new minister wishes honest, independent, and gutsy advice.

Comprehensively rethinking the multitudinous advisory groups and stakeholder committee meetings would also go a long way towards soliciting courageous, trustworthy, knowledge-based, and credible guidance that will help all veterans and their families. Creating new groups with open nomination processes requiring clear credentials, whether they be education, valid experience, and/or a proven right to represent disabled veterans appointees, would be a good start. Operating them in complete transparency is a must that would also fulfill Liberal promises of the same.

Profound and authentic change will only occur if Canadians understands the true costs of serving in uniform. Veterans deserve their reconciliation commission through a fully public judicial inquiry into the treatment of veterans and their families over the past five decades. They need to tell their story and Canadians need to listen.

It would be regrettable if O’Regan were appointed because of his journalism background and a mediagenic personality with the potential to spin the truth. Since multiple veteran scandals in 2010, the department has been on a seven-year spin-fest, currently employing more than three dozen individuals in their communications directorate, including two directors general and five directors. Veterans don’t deserve to be publicly browbeaten with the implication that since Veterans Affairs is so tremendous, any failure to receive help must be the veteran’s fault.

The Liberals through O’Regan can effect meaningful change. Let’s hope they don’t spend the next two years until the election manipulating silence in the veterans’ community while bullying, berating, or benching anyone who speaks out.

Canadians in uniform fought and died for this democracy. Let’s repay them the very least of what they are owed: their democratic voice and fulsome participation in an open and transparent path to healing; not ceremonial figureheads, propaganda, and endless excuses to avoid doing the right thing.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, has a graduate degree in public ethics, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer, and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.