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Veterans Ombudsman Calls for Action on House of Commons Committee's Recommendations on the New Veterans Charter

OTTAWA, ONTARIO -- (Marketwired) -- 07/10/14 -- Canada's Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent today released his analysis of the House of Commons Standing Committee Report and recommendations on the New Veterans Charter, The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward. His analysis is contained in a letter to Committee Chair Greg Kerr (attached).

"I am pleased that the Committee took up most of my recommendations and put forward that the Veterans Bill of Rights be included in the New Veterans Charter and in the Pension Act and that the Charter be liberally construed and clearly recognize the obligation of the Government of Canada and all Canadians to its Veterans and their families," said Mr. Parent.

In particular, he commended the Committee for achieving all-party support on its recommendations and for recognizing that 'tinkering around the corners' of the New Veterans Charter is not good enough anymore. "Substantive changes are needed to address the deficiencies in Veterans' benefits and services for those who have been injured or become ill through their service to Canada," he said. "A plan is just a plan until it is put into action."

While in agreement with the majority of the Committee's recommendations, he cautioned that the wording of some is too ambiguous and could result in multi-interpretations that may be quite inconsistent with the original intent of the Committee. He also expressed concern about recommendation 4 - Earnings Loss Benefit - and recommendation 9 - Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) Long Term Disability program - stating that he cannot support them in the present form and offered his analysis of their shortcomings.

The Committee's Report was published within weeks of the June 2014 release of two other Reports also addressing Veterans' transition issues - the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence's Report Caring for Canada's Ill and Injured Military Personnel and the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs' Report The Transition to Civilian Life of Veterans. "This leaves little doubt in my mind that parliamentarians are sending a very strong message to the Government of Canada that the current shortcomings in Veterans' support need immediate attention," added Mr. Parent.

The Veterans Ombudsman met yesterday with the Hon. Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs, his staff and senior Veterans Affairs Canada officials. He briefed them on his analysis of the Committee's Report, as per his letter to the Committee Chair.

"My office is now actively engaged with the Minister and Veterans Affairs Canada to move these changes forward in a timely manner," said Mr. Parent. "As Veterans Ombudsman and Special Advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, I pledge my readiness to do whatever is necessary to achieve this goal. To me, it is a matter of fairness to our Veterans and their families."


July 10, 2014

Mr. Greg Kerr, Chair
House of Commons
Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs
Sixth Floor, 131 Queen Street
House of Commons
Ottawa ON K1A 0A6

Re: Office of the Veterans Ombudsman Analysis of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs Report: "The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward"

Mr. Chair:

I would like to compliment the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs for its Report: The New Veterans Charter: Moving Forward. The Report's recommendations are generally consistent with those contained in my October 2013 Report, Improving the New Veterans Charter and Actuarial Analysis, which put forward evidenced-based recommendations that addressed shortcomings in three New Veterans Charter program areas: financial, vocational rehabilitation and assistance, and family support.

I commend the Committee for taking the important step of making a recommendation to incorporate the Veterans Bill of Rights into both the New Veterans Charter and the Pension Act; and for promoting that the Charter be liberally construed. I am also particularly impressed by the all-party support for the recommendations. This signifies to me that Committee Members listened carefully to the many stakeholders who testified before them since the hearings began last fall. They also took into account the many reports and recommendations previously published on the New Veterans Charter since 2006, and recognized, in their final deliberations leading up to the publication of their Report, that 'tinkering around the corners' of the New Veterans Charter is not good enough anymore. Substantive change is needed to address the deficiencies in Veterans' benefits and services for those who have been injured or become ill through their service to Canada.

Considering that the Committee's Report was published within weeks of the June 2014 release of two other Reports also addressing Veterans' transition issues - the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence's Report Caring for Canada's Ill and Injured Military Personnel and the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs' Report The Transition to Civilian Life of Veterans - there is little doubt in my mind that parliamentarians are sending a very strong message to the Government of Canada that the current shortcomings in Veterans' support need immediate attention.

While I am in agreement with the majority of the Committee's recommendations, I caution that the wording of some is too ambiguous and could result in multi-interpretations that may be quite inconsistent with the original intent of the Committee. Therefore, I request more clarity concerning the definition of the term "families", and would like to draw your attention to the limitation of the term "seriously disabled Veterans" as defined in the Committee's Report. In addition, I am particularly concerned about recommendations 4 and 9 and cannot support them in the present form.

Recommendation 4

This addresses the complex issue of the Earnings Loss Benefit and states that "the earnings loss benefit be non-taxable and set at 85% of net income, up to a net income threshold of $70,000, that it be adjusted annually to the consumer price index, and that for veterans who participate in a rehabilitation program, the disability award be paid once the program is completed".

As per my October 2013 Report, I support providing the Earnings Loss Benefit to eligible Veterans at a rate that allows them to maintain their net pre-release salary during transition from service in the Canadian Armed Forces to a civilian job for those who can return to work, or until age 65 for those who can no longer work. There should be no reduction in net income as a result of receiving an Earnings Loss Benefit.

If the Committee's intent was to ensure that a Veteran's pre-release standard of living is not reduced during transition to civilian life or until age 65, then the use of the words "net", "non-taxable" and "threshold" (Is the $70,000 a maximum or does this refer to the limit of the tax exemption?) requires clarity. A restrictive interpretation will most probably adversely affect Veterans and reduce their income. I do not believe that this was the goal of the recommendation.

The proposed recommendation in my October 2013 report, Improving the New Veterans Charter and Actuarial Analysis, concerning the Earning Loss Benefit is that it should be increased from the current 75 percent to 90 percent of the Veteran's gross pre-release salary. This is similar to how other schemes calculate income replacement. As I noted at the time, such an increase of the Earnings Loss Benefit to 90 percent of pre-release gross salary would provide a Veteran with 100 percent of his or her net pre-release salary because while he/she is in receipt of the income support benefit, they no longer contribute to Employment Insurance, the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan, and Canadian Forces superannuation. The current wording of Recommendation 4 does not achieve this goal.

Furthermore, the latter part of the recommendation concerning the Disability Award payment upon program completion is confusing. The Disability Award compensates for pain and suffering and is not related to the rehabilitation program. Its purpose is to provide immediate compensation for pain and suffering and should not be held back until a rehabilitation program is completed. Such action would disadvantage Veterans needing a longer rehabilitation period and create unfairness. Therefore, the Disability Award should not be withheld as recommended in the Committee's Report.

Recommendation 9

This Recommendation states that "the Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) Long Term Disability program be provided only to veterans medically released for a disability not related to military service, that all veterans released for service-related medical reasons benefit from the programs offered under the New Veterans Charter, and that the Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada work together as quickly as possible to eliminate overlap between Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) programs and those provided by Veterans Affairs Canada."

Currently, service relationship is not considered when determining whether a Canadian Armed Forces' member is medically released (only that the member has medical employment limitations that makes them unable to meet the obligatory Universality of Service requirements). Therefore, this recommendation will require a new process to determine service relationship at time of release. Also, the recommendation could affect the provision of vocational rehabilitation to the spouses of Veterans who are unable to complete a vocational rehabilitation program because SISIP does not provide this benefit. Finally, it is also unclear whether the Committee is recommending that Veterans Affairs Canada continue to provide medical and psychosocial rehabilitation to the Veteran who is medically released for a non-service related injury or illness; if not, this could affect the successful completion of the vocational rehabilitation plan under the SISIP LTD program. Furthermore, I recommend that an independent review of the dual SISIP Financial Services and Veterans Affairs Canada income support and vocational rehabilitation programs be initiated to determine their effectiveness.

At the end of the day, what is really important for Veterans and their families is that real and timely action is taken by the Government of Canada to address the pressing deficiencies in the support currently provided to Veterans and their families.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated at the launch of the New Veterans Charter on April 6, 2006: "In future, when our servicemen and women leave our military family, they can rest assured the Government will help them and their families' transition to civilian life. Our troops' commitment and service to Canada entitles them to the very best treatment possible. This Charter is but a first step towards according Canadian veterans the respect and support they deserve."

I have already met and briefed the Hon. Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs on my analysis of the Committee's report, along with his staff and senior Veterans Affairs Canada officials. The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman is now actively engaged and working with both the Minister and the Department to move this forward.

Although clarifications are needed to the Committee Report, as suggested above, I believe that Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence have now a broad enough spectrum of evidence-based analysis and recommendations to start taking decisive action to address what is unfair with the current suite of New Veterans Charter programs and services. Also, as I mentioned to the Committee in my testimony, my Office will be publishing a report on the Permanent Impairment Allowance in mid-August that is complementary to my previous reports on the New Veterans Charter and will provide additional research, analysis and recommendations on supporting severely impaired Veterans.

I realize that work will be needed regarding cost implications and implementation rollout (including policy and program changes/approach, timing and sequencing). But, if action is taken to re-integrate Veterans successfully into civilian life and help them achieve what every Canadian strives for - a good job, financial independence, a reasonable quality of personal and family life, along with the best possible health - it will pay dividends not only to Veterans and their families, but to all Canadians. For those whose medical condition or illness does not allow them to return to work, it would ensure that they receive the support they need to live their lives with financial security and dignity.

In conclusion, I thank the Committee for its diligent work. While I support the majority of the recommendations put forward by the Committee, I will closely monitor their implementation because a plan is just a plan until it is put into action. Furthermore, as Veterans Ombudsman and Special Advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, I pledge my readiness to do whatever is necessary to help the Committee and Veterans Affairs Canada move forward substantive changes to ensure that the needs of Veterans and their families are met.

I would be pleased to discuss my comments further with you.

Guy Parent

Veterans Ombudsman

Contacts:
Media Inquiries
Lucille Hodgins
Media Relations Advisor
1-613-943-7884
Lucille.Hodgins@ombudsman-veterans.gc.ca

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