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Thank-you for your invitation to appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.
This is my first appearance before a parliamentary committee and I look forward to the exchange that we will have today. Here with me is Colonel (retired) Charlie Cue, my current Director of Research and Investigation and Strategic Policy Advisor.
You have invited me to address the work of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman in relation to combat stress and its consequences on the well-being of Veterans and their families. I would like to begin by saying that I appreciate the work being done by this committee on this key issue, along with the efforts of various other organizations, and I will do my best to add value to the discussion.
Before going into that, let me share with you how the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman operates under my leadership.
We provide three main services to the Veterans’ community:
- Information concerning the various programs and services that are available to Veterans and their families through Veterans Affairs Canada, and other groups serving the Veterans’ community;
- Assistance and referral for Veterans who come to us often as a last resort after being bounced between organizations and receiving conflicting advice; and,
- Intervention which can be as simple as an informal mediation between a Veteran and a program or service provider on a single disputed issue, or as complex as a full investigation into a systemic problem and culminating in a formal report with recommendations.
Now, I will get back to the topic at hand. First, while the subject is combat stress, I prefer to talk about operational stress injuries, which is a broader, more encompassing term. Although we have not had many direct complaints about the issue of combat stress specifically, it is an underlying factor of many complaints received: a condition behind the issue. As a result, the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman actively monitors what is happening in this area.
Here are a couple of examples that represent different issues brought to our Office by Veterans and their families in relation to their dealings with Veterans Affairs Canada. Both cases illustrate the fact that the Department appears to be ill-prepared to deal with Veterans in a crisis situation.
In the first case, a Veteran was in receipt of psychiatric services from a physician located in Ottawa, although he was a resident of Montreal. Veterans Affairs Canada, recognizing the importance of the patient-physician relationship, agreed to reimburse the travel for this arrangement. However, when the physician was posted to Trenton and the Veteran found himself in a crisis situation, he requested permission to travel to Trenton to see his physician. Veterans Affairs Canada refused his request to cover the travel expenses to Trenton. After three months, the spouse of the Veteran contacted Veterans Affairs Canada because the Veteran became suicidal and she was advised to contact 911 by the Department. As a last resort, she contacted the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, which began negotiations with Veterans Affairs Canada on her behalf. During the course of these negotiations, the Department of National Defence stepped forward, resolved the issue within two days, and agreed to reimburse the Veteran’s travel expenses to Trenton.
In the second case, during the course of an in-depth transition interview, it was recognized that a Veteran had significant ongoing mental health issues. Veterans Affairs Canada did not follow-up with the Veteran after he retired from the Canadian Forces. When his condition deteriorated, it resulted in the Veteran ending up in the criminal justice system and his incarceration in a psychiatric institution. The family contacted the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman because they did not know where else to turn. The Office liaised with Veterans Affairs Canada and the issue was addressed.
Both examples demonstrate that failure to respond quickly to the needs of Veterans and their families struggling with operational stress injuries can degenerate quickly into more serious life and death situations. This is why the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman will continue to monitor very closely and provide advice in regard to the specific services and programs for Veterans living with operational stress injuries. The Office will monitor also the Department’s transformation agenda because any measure that simplifies and speeds up service delivery will have a doubly positive impact on Veterans suffering with mental health issues.
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman will collaborate with – and at times challenge – Veterans Affairs Canada on mental health issues as we intervene on a case-by-case basis on behalf of individual Veterans. In addition, we thought it essential to train our staff to deal with Veterans who could be in distress at the time they contact us. This training has proven effective.
The interventions of the Office in individual cases, discussions with the Department on this issue, and any systemic research that the Office may take on in the future will be informed by the research and studies done by other organizations. This will avoid any duplication of effort.
There are a number of relevant areas that you may want to consider in your work, as these may have been overshadowed by more visible issues:
- Access to operational stress injury clinics;
- Transition challenges;
- Complex bureaucracy and red tape;
- How Veterans Affairs Canada is dealing with new research;
- National strategy on homeless Veterans;
- Awareness of and access to programs and services for Reservists; and
- Lack of research on Veterans in the criminal justice system.
In 2011, I will continue to push forward on Veterans’ issues by focusing on unfair practices and making realistic recommendations for change. This will benefit all Veterans, including those with operational stress injuries.
To focus energies and guide the Office, I have chosen “One Veteran” as our theme for this year. This will reinforce the idea that since sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen, as well as members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, do not question where and when they must serve, for Veterans Affairs Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to determine that the level of programs and services provided will be based on the type of service rendered is an injustice of the first order. To this end, I will be working closely with Veterans’ advocacy groups to encourage them to consolidate their efforts to make the “One Veteran” principle a Veterans Affairs Canada reality with the focus on service in general, rather than “where” and when” that service occurred. I believe that the application of the “One Veteran” principle would simplify processes, lower costs and result in better service to Veterans.
In the coming months, in keeping with the report Serve with Honour, Depart with Dignity, published by the Office in September 2009, I intend to pursue the recommendations already made to the Minister of Veterans Affairs regarding funeral and burial expenses. I will also be putting forth recommendations on identified unfairness issues concerning the Veterans Independence Program, and taking a critical look at the Department’s transformation agenda.
I encourage you and your parliamentary colleagues to move as quickly as possible to pass Bill C-55, An Act to amend the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-Establishment and Compensation Act and the Pension Act. Although not comprehensive, the extra support that the Bill offers addresses some concerns raised in the past.
In conclusion, I want you to know that I focus on people and the effectiveness of outcomes, not processes. We are seeing positive changes in the world of mental health and the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman will continue to provide an objective viewpoint as to whether these outcomes are successful.