Parliament throws veterans under the bus, yet again

Veterans pictured last week protesting on Parliament Hill

Sean Bruyea

Veterans have every reason to be disillusioned with Ottawa once again. But this time, the disappointment could become the nail in Minister Julian Fantino’s Veterans Affairs coffin.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee released its much anticipated report reviewing the New Veterans Charter (NVC). The legislation required a “comprehensive review” to begin last November in spite of Minister Fantino’s claim that he called for the review to be comprehensive. The Minister did however call committee to focus on the “most seriously injured, support for families and delivery of program by Veterans Affairs Canada [VAC]”.

The report’s 14 limited recommendations received unanimous and glowing accolades from all parties.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The most positive recommendation proposed a detailed procedure for injured leaving the military, transferring to VAC and receiving care in their communities. Ensuring that veterans in isolated and rural areas receive adequate care, a longstanding problem, was not addressed.

Most of the remaining thirteen recommendations range from poorly defined to bizarre.

The NVC results in serious inequities, providing less to reserve force veterans than those in the regular military. The report recommended that reserve force veterans “be entitled to the same benefits” as regular force veterans. However, the bureaucracy could easily respond that reservists are already “entitled to the same benefits”, just lesser amounts with greater barriers.

Poorly defined words populate eleven of the fourteen recommendations: “greater flexibility”, “better access”, “as required” and that VAC “consider”. These weasel words substantially suck good potential from the recommendations. They also allow bureaucracy to easily avoid making substantive positive changes.

The Toronto Star reported committee member and veteran Laurie Hawn “insisted the report eliminated ‘any wiggle room’” for Minsiter Fantino. Instead there is enough space for a dozen dancing elephants as well as the Minster to avoid doing the right thing for disabled veterans and their families.

Perhaps the most galling will be the recommendation on the lump sum benefit. Unprecedented unanimity of veteran, legal, and rehabilitation experts agree the maximum lump sum for pain and suffering associated with disabilities needs to be greater than the current $300,000. Payouts averaged under $40,000 last year. A growing consensus calls for a return to the lifelong monthly payment which the RCMP injured still enjoy as well as almost 94,000 other veterans as of September 2013.

The committee took seven months to study the problem. Veterans, academics and experts, including me since 2005, have been highlighting the lesser standard provided by the lump sum when compared to lifelong payments. In what sounds more like a self-justifying political treatise, the report speciously claims that “more seriously disabled veterans” would “probably” not want the lifelong recognition the monthly payments provide.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but surely a massive disappointment, that the committee completely avoided making a clear recommendation. Committee lazily suggests the bureaucracy carry out its own “comprehensive review” of the lump sum amount, with no set deadline.

Another delaying tactic is unnecessary to learn that Canadian courts pay out a maximum of $356,695 as of April 2014 or that the United Kingdom pays its veterans a maximum of £570,000 (just over a million dollars) for injuries. VAC internal audits indicate the lifelong payments provide substantially more to most veterans than the lump sum.

Families were also the “focus” of the comprehensive review and yet received just two recommendations. Increasingly, family members such as Jenny Migneault, have been calling for assistance to care for their permanently disabled veteran spouses. I tabled specific recommendations to provide financial assistance (and medical support) to the spouses who often forfeit their careers to do the caregiving work VAC should be doing. The committee recommended that financial support be limited to spouses of those veterans who are either within one year of being moved to a long term care facility or within one year of death. This will not help Jenny.

Otherwise, committee recommended family members be sloughed off to the Military Family Resource Centres. The centres do good work but they are not-for-profit organizations. They are not meaningfully accountable to government should they fail to provide services. They also do not have reliable sources of funding, a problem afflicting Veterans Affairs lately.

Perhaps some recommendations could improve the lives for a limited number of veterans and their families, only if bureaucrat policy writers are uncharacteristically generous. However, one particular ill-conceived recommendation will make life worse.

In addition to a limited pain and suffering lump sum, injured veterans if medically released from the forces or unable to work due to military injuries rely upon income loss payments. Currently payments are pegged to 75% of gross military salary. The ombudsman recommended that this be boosted to 90%. Rehabilitation experts, VAC advisory groups and eleven prominent veteran organizations called for 100% while adding in future lost potential for the most disabled. The Veterans Affairs committee called for 100% in their more comprehensive report four years ago.

Mysteriously, this same committee recommended that the benefit be made non-taxable and pegged at 85% of net salary, limiting the net salary to $70,000.

The disability plan serving MP’s and bureaucrats does not impose limits. Why would parliament push for a lesser standard for veterans?

I did further research with WorkSafeBC and an Ottawa-based accountant. Let’s take two veterans with two typical ranks, Corporal and Captain. They each have 10 years of service, four annual pay increases, a spouse, two kids and live in Ontario. They are unable to work again due to military injuries. The Corporal earned $60,000 in the Forces. Under the current income loss program, after tax income would be no less than $42,597. Under the committee proposed program, income loss payments would be no more than $37,758.

For the Captain earning $85,632, the current program would pay $54,885 and the proposed program would pay $51,130.  WorkSafeBC would pay $41,112 for an equivalent salary to the corporal and $52,473 for a salary equivalent to the Captain.

Not one witness recommended this puzzling 85% let alone a maximum threshold, although WSIB Ontario uses 85% of net income and a similar threshold.

The report decries the current income loss program for being modelled on the military insurance plan. Instead, committee proposes to replace a military insurance program and imitate civilian workplace insurance programs.

Minister Fantino hyped this review only to have committee deliver a largely evasive list of bizarre or underwhelming recommendations. His response to the report was to promise a response by fall.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper called military service “the highest form of public service”. Minister Fantino’s escapades and inept management fall far short of respecting veterans and their families. Increasing neglect by government and certain organizations will encourage increasing desperation by veterans. Government had better start fighting for veterans soon or Canadians will stop fighting for government.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on June 9, 2014.

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