Opening Remarks: House of Commons - Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs
Gary Walbourne -- DND/CAF Ombudsman
Ottawa, ON | October 6, 2016
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Thank you Mr. Chair and Good Afternoon to All,
It is my understanding that this committee has taken great interest in my two recent reports (Determining Service Attribution for Medically Releasing Members and Simplifying the Service Delivery Model for Medically Releasing Members) containing recommendations to the Minister of National Defence and has invited me here today to speak to them.
Our military personnel from across the country have voiced concerns over a number of critical issues related to their service from recruitment to retirement, but none more frequent than those pertaining to the subject of transition between military and civilian life. Every year, over 50% of the complaints that come into my office deal with that very subject. Whether they are releasing from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) for medical reasons, or non-medical ones, what they face is a complex system that I believe needs to be fundamentally changed. Tack on the additional administrative burden of applying for benefits and services at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and I think we have reached a tipping point for our men and women in uniform.
From our engagements with men and women in uniform across the country on issues surrounding medical release from the Armed Forces my office has produced a number of reports that contain evidence-based recommendations, aimed at solving these issues. Our reports call for action.
I believe that the government has a tremendous opportunity to fix the system that too often allows vulnerable people to slip through the cracks. We have provided plenty of evidence supporting the need for real change in key areas. We do not need to commission more studies, we need decisions. Some of the decisions that need to be made may not be popular, some may not be as politically palatable as one might desire, but they are the right ones for the men and women who serve or have served this country. I can assure you that many of the tragic circumstances that occur in your constituencies, that often reach national public attention, can be avoided.
I would like to summarize for you today what I have recommended to help protect members of the Canadian Armed Forces from undue hardship.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada wherein a member must navigate departure from one before entrance into the other. Most of this has to do with the determination of attribution of service and the current service delivery model.
On May 18th I delivered a report to the Minister of National Defence, where I recommended that the Canadian Armed Forces determine whether an illness or injury is caused or aggravated by that member’s military service and that that determination be presumed by Veterans Affairs Canada to be sufficient evidence to support an application for benefits. I made this report public on September 13th, and copies were provided to this committee.
In conducting their adjudications under the New Veterans Charter, Veterans Affairs Canada, as the administrator, considers mostly documentary evidence generated by the Canadian Armed Forces. The evidence consists largely of the member’s medical records and possibly other career related records.
This begs the question of why a protracted bureaucratic process is required for VAC to review records prepared by the Canadian Armed Forces when it is possible for the CAF to determine whether a medically releasing member’s condition is related to or aggravated by military service. Given that the CAF has control of the member’s career and has responsibility for the member’s medical health throughout that career, such a determination can and should be presumed to be evidence in support of a member’s application for VAC benefits.
I believe that my recommendation of having the CAF determine service attribution, in conjunction with a change to the Service Delivery Model, would cut wait times by 50% or more, greatly reducing the current 16 week service standard at VAC – which – by the way – does not include the 3 weeks it takes for VAC to get medical files from the CAF or the time it takes a member to get and submit relevant documents.
You may think that the development of a new service delivery model would require intensive study that will take months or even years to complete. On August 12th I submitted a report to the Minister of National Defence containing a potential new service delivery model. I made this report public last week, and copies have been provided to this committee.
The recommendations contained in the report are the following:
- That the Canadian Armed Forces would retain medically releasing members until all benefits from ALL sources, including Veterans Affairs have been finalized and put into place.
- Establish one point of contact, a concierge service, if you will, for all medically releasing members to assist in their transition.
- That the Canadian Armed Forces develop a tool that is capable of providing members with information so that they can understand their potential benefit suite, prior to release.
Three strong, evidence-based, member-centric recommendations ladies and gentlemen that I believe are GAME CHANGERS. My three recommendations do NOT require new legislation. Nor do they require the implementation of my recommendations surrounding attribution of service – although I know that they are closely aligned and anything we do will be further enhanced by the CAF determining attribution of service.
As we all know from their mandate letters made public, the Prime Minister has asked the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Minister of National Defence to:
- reduce complexity,
- overhaul service delivery, and
- strengthen the partnership between the two.
Both Ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff have publicly acknowledged that the system needs fixing. The time is no longer to study but to fix.
On Monday, it was reported that Veterans Affairs Canada has a backlog of 11,500 applications for benefits and services. I strongly believe that implementing my recommendations to have the Canadian Armed Forces determine Attribution of Service and to restructure its service delivery model to ensure that no member is released before all benefits from the CAF and VAC are in place can greatly reduce the complexity leading to those delays.
As some of you may know, I spent nearly four years as the Deputy Veterans Ombudsman. I can tell you that there has always been a backlog of Veterans applications. Although the sizes varied over the years, they still numbered in the thousands. Even when operating cuts were made to the department, the numbers did not increase or decrease in a significant way.
This, ladies and gentlemen, indicates to me that this is a PROCESS issue, not a PEOPLE issue. I am not recommending patchwork; I am recommending a fundamental shift in the way business is done.
The Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs are currently exploring options to “close the seam”. By having the CAF implement my recommendations to take care of the members on the front end, it will provide Veterans Affairs with a simplified environment in which to do its important work.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I firmly believe that we are at a opportune moment for members of the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans in our country. There is a large contingent of Veterans groups in Ottawa this week participating in the Minister of Veterans Affairs’ Stakeholder Summit which wrapped up today and that I attended as an “interested party”. I had a chance to catch up with many of the leaders in the veterans community and I can tell you how positively my two reports were received by them and others. Many of them wished that my recommendations were implemented while they were releasing, and even more of them want desperately for these solutions to be in place for our future releasing members.
The common theme from my engagements with these groups this week has been the need to fundamentally change the current system both on the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs side. I couldn’t agree more.
I believe my recommendations offer the government a clear path forward.
Our people should be our top priority, our true “No Fail” mission. It’s “Go Time”.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and I stand ready for questions.
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