Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to give an overview of the work of the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO), as well as the challenges that my team and I face and our assessment of upcoming issues.
We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the Pension Act – Canada’s first major legislation for Veterans. It was passed by Parliament in 1919. In the almost 100 years since, although successive governments have tried earnestly to improve Veterans’ benefits and programs, gaps still remain.
I respect all of the efforts of past parliamentarians, public servants, Veterans’ organizations and advocates who have worked hard at this for decades, and I’ll return to address the potential reason for this later on in my remarks. But, first, I’d like to share with you the role of my Office.
There are almost 700,000 Veterans in Canada and more than 100,000 still-serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who one day will join their ranks. Whether or not they receive benefits and services from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), I consider all of them and their families to be stakeholders and potential clients of the OVO.
As an arm’s-length organization, the OVO acts as an independent and impartial voice for all those served by VAC. As such, we provide direct services to a widely-dispersed client base to ensure that the needs of Canada’s Veterans and their families are considered in accordance with the Veterans Bill of Rights. In addition, my role as Special Advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs offers me the opportunity to present directly to the Minister matters of importance to the Veterans’ community.
The Office often acts as a catalyst to shape and inform national debate on Veterans’ issues. We are well positioned for that role because we continually engage with Veterans and their families across Canada through one-on-one conversations, Town Halls, our website and social media.
In our work, we follow the standards of practice of the International Ombudsman Association and the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman. We are an evidence-based organization and we judge fairness of any Veterans’ benefit or program based on its adequacy, sufficiency and accessibility.
We have dedicated front-line staff who help individual Veterans navigate through the sometimes complexity of VAC’s benefits and programs. We also identify gaps in programs, benefits and services for Veterans and their families; and we enable informed debate on systemic issues by publishing first the facts in a Review, followed by a Report with recommendations.
The OVO, as the Office is commonly called, played an important role from 2012 to 2014 in opening up the New Veterans Charter (NVC) to a full review before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA). In fact, it was our 2013 Review, Report and Actuarial Analysis on the NVC – endorsed by all major Veterans’ organizations, advocates and stakeholders – that was the catalyst for the Government’s decision to open up the whole Charter for review. I am proud that our evidence-based research helped create an informed debate that led to substantive recommendations endorsed unanimously by all members of ACVA. But much remains to be done despite the best efforts of all engaged in Veterans’ issues.
Benefits are still too complex. After decades of layering regulations and policies one atop the other, without regard for how this might affect other benefits, the complexity is oftentimes byzantine in nature. Service delivery needs to become more Veteran-centric with a one-stop shopping approach. Also, to foster transparency and openness, VAC processes and reasons for decisions for Veterans’ benefit applications need to be much better communicated to Veterans. This will promote positive citizen engagement.
Everyone involved in Veterans’ issues knows these challenges, yet the question remains: How do we close the gaps? How do we define what a gap is? Do we continue with the same mindset that has failed for almost a century to meet the needs of all Veterans or do we embark on something new? Like focusing on outcomes for Veterans.
VAC does not measure the outcome or report the effect programs have on Veterans. In fact, we discovered while conducting research on the origins of Veterans’ benefits that from the 1920s to today, none that we looked at had a written statement about its intended outcome for Veterans.
The OVO has always focused first on outcomes for Veterans and it would appear that our new Government is outcome-oriented, also. So, I say to you, let us seize this opportunity and clearly define the outcomes that we want to achieve to close the gaps for our Veterans and their families. Without knowing the outcome, we cannot determine what size the gap is.
Let me take this a step further. Did you know that we do not have a benchmark defined for what is a fair level of financial compensation for income replacement or pain and suffering for Veterans? I ask you: How can we measure whether our efforts are being effective if we do not have an agreedupon comparison point?
In addition, when we run a detailed analysis of income replacement for Veterans, the evidence shows that not only are the outcomes inconsistent and unfair in many cases, there is also no policy rationale for creating those outcomes.
So, I believe that it is time for a new approach focused on outcomes for Veterans, not program activities or results. Otherwise, we will continue to disadvantage many of our Veterans and their families, as we have done for almost 100 years.
We need to improve today by fixing some immediate problems with the NVC but we more importantly need to shape tomorrow by doing a comprehensive analysis of the interdependencies of all benefits. With both we need to look at the impact that changing one benefit outcome has in relation to all Veterans’ benefits across the entire Veteran population. With the advantage of our new lens of focusing on outcomes for Veterans first, we also need to ensure that the whole-of-government effect is considered when supporting our Veterans and their families.
Specifically, to improve today for the most vulnerable Veterans, we need to increase the Earnings Loss Benefit (ELB) to 90 percent and fix how Permanent Impairment Allowance (PIA) grades are determined. It is important that we provide compensation to family members forced to give up their careers to care for injured Veterans and make family access to mental health services easier for family members
To shape tomorrow, we need to define and achieve the desired outcome for Veterans for lifetime financial security and compensation for pain and suffering. We need to do more direct engagement with Veterans and their families to find out their needs and are they being met. Also, we need to move to one simple application for Veterans’ benefits administered proactively by VAC, so that instead of the onus being on the Veteran to figure out what they might be eligible for, the burden is on the Department to offer to the Veteran all the benefits and services available to them. Finally, we need to work to ensure seamless and successful transition from military to civilian life for Veterans and their families.
These priorities mirror the goals contained in the Minister of Veterans Affairs’ Mandate Letter. The opportunity is before us to finally not only close the gaps on Veterans’ benefits and programs, but to actually get it right for the first time. Let this be the generation that defines a better future for Veterans and their families.