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Veterans Affairs Canada Advisory Group on Families Teleconference

Tuesday, June 19, 2018
11:00 – 12:30 (EST)

In Attendance

Advisory Group on Families Members

  • Yvonne Burke, Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association
  • Sergeant (Retired) Alannah Gilmore (Co-chair)
  • Tamara Kleinschmidt, Trenton Military Family Resources Centre
  • Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Chris Lindford
  • Ray McInnis, Royal Canadian Legion
  • Jenny Migneault (Advocate)
  • Brigadier-General (Retired) Bill Richard
  • Nora Spinks, The Vanier Institute of the Family
  • Laurie Ogilvie, Military Family Services

Regrets

  • Dave LeBlanc, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Veterans Association
  • Namita Joshi, True Patriot Love Foundation
  • Karine Villeneuve, Operational Stress Injury Social Support, Department of National Defence

Office of the Minister of Veterans Affairs

  • Laurel Chester, Stakeholder Relations

Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) Officials

  • Faith McIntyre, Director General, Policy and Research Division (VAC Co-chair)
  • Paul Thomson, Director General, Service Delivery Modernization
  • Sylvie Thibodeau-Sealy, Director, Veterans Priority Programs Secretariat
  • Michelle Morrison, Senior Analyst, Stakeholder Engagement and Outreach

Observer

  • Tim Zurakowski, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

Welcome and Opening Remarks

The co-chairs welcomed members and made opening remarks. The teleconference agenda items and highlights of the discussion are provided below.

Research on Veteran Families

The VAC Co-chair facilitated the presentation, “New Research on Veteran Families: Qualitative Study on the Health and Well-being of Families of Canadian Armed Forces Veterans with Mental Health Problems”. The presentation provided an overview of the results from the 2018 “Family Well-Being” study, a qualitative study on the well-being of families of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Veterans with mental health problems, especially during the military to civilian transition phase. Key elements of the presentation included:

  • The study strengthens the growing evidence base in Canada, and adds a qualitative value to understanding the quantitative, population-level data obtained from the results of the Life After Service Studies (LASS) 2016, which included questions about families from the Veteran’s perspective. The study confirmed the challenges thought to be facing Veteran families during transition, and identified new pieces of information, along with specific suggestions made by participants to improve things.
  • The findings suggest that the Budget 2017 programs will be beneficial to families, in particular the Caregiver Recognition Benefit, the Veteran and Family Well-Being Fund, which provides funding to third party organizations to invest in innovative ways to support Veterans and their families, the expansion of the Veteran Family Program across all Military Family Resource Centres (MFRCs) in Canada, and the Centre of Excellence on PTSD and related Mental Health conditions.
  • However there is still a long way to go. Any new program development or approaches must include families, and factor in some key findings from the study, for example:
    • Direct outreach to families is key
    • Assistance is required to navigate the system
    • Geographic isolation is a barrier
    • Families report benefits of online interactions
    • Information does not necessarily flow through the Veteran to the family

The presentation was followed with questions and comments from the group members:

  • It was noted that this research is so valuable in light of the work of the MFRCs and the expansion of services available to Veterans and families, in order to better orient services to reflect the needs.
  • In follow-up to the suggestion raised by research participants to have a broader definition of families, it was noted that the MFRCs do consider anyone as family who is identified by the Veteran as a key support.
  • The Vanier Institute of the Family is looking at international approaches to the definition of family, and working with other countries to identify common language about this. The initial finding emerging from this work is that ‘families’ are increasingly self-defined, and this could change greatly over the life course.
  • It was noted that the issue of defining ‘family’ can create inconsistencies in access to services depending on the service organization.
  • Although it is appreciated that this research is now available, concern was noted about how it will contribute to actually addressing gaps in what services are available for families. In particular, the limits of the Caregiver Recognition Benefit were noted as not meeting the need or expectations, suggesting that it is only available to a very small number of recipients, when many other families are struggling. The VAC Co-chair indicated there is an increasing focus on recognizing the role of families throughout the Department, and this family lens will impact consideration of benefits, as well as how the Department does outreach to families and provides services in the field. It was noted that the Mental Health Advisory Group has also raised concerns about the Caregiver Recognition Benefit, and this will be further examined by the Department.
  • It was noted that the national implementation of the Veteran Family Program has met with difficulties associated with the increased bureaucracy and budget approvals, where individual MFRCs are facing less flexibility in delivering programming. It was requested that there be a further examination of the implementation approach to address the challenges.
  • It was noted that the Military Family Services (MFS) had conducted a pilot of the Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday (COPE) program this year, but had struggled to find pilot participants, given the eligibility criteria set out by VAC. However, it is positive that the MFS are engaging the COPE program. The VAC co-chair will follow-up on this point.
  • It was noted that online services are important for Veterans in rural and remote communities.
  • A member noted that in order to meet the needs of Veterans as they increasingly move to northern and remote locations, it is necessary to work on building the capacity of the local health and social services. Work also needs to be done to enhance the competencies of local health professionals to work with Veterans.

Pension for Life Implementation Approach

The Director General for Service Delivery and Modernization provided the group with an overview of the implementation approach for the new Pension for Life benefits, which will come into effect on April 1, 2019. A Powerpoint presentation guided the discussion. The key elements of his presentation included the following points:

  • A brief review of the three new benefits was provided (for more information please visit the following links):
  • The implementation approach adopted by the Department for the successful implementation of the new benefits, is using an approach guided by the following principles:
    • Give Veterans the benefit of the doubt
    • Design the program for the majority, not the exception, building more trust into the system, so it simplifies for the majority of users who do not abuse the system, rather than complicate it for the small percentage of those who might.
    • Be Veteran-centric
    • Delegate to and empower VAC employees who are guiding the implementation
    • Tell us once, meaning design it so there are not multiple times certain feedback has to be heard in order to influence the design.
  • The implementation work is happening in multi-disciplinary groups co-working the problems and solutions together, rather than an assembly line approach. The teams, or ‘scrums’ are empowered to make decisions, and the result is that final products are a joint responsibility of various areas of the department, and will avoid unforeseen complications during the implementation approach.
  • A major focus is on incorporating the user-testing early in the implementation process, to ensure this input can influence the design at an early stage of development, and this includes family members. The group members were invited to be test-users during the process.
  • The implementation will be ready for April 1, 2019, but it will continue to be adapted as feedback and experience of the Veteran will be tracked to ensure improvements are made as needed.

Questions and Comments included:

Q1 When will Veterans be given a status report about the new benefits?

A1 Information will be shared with Veterans in an on-going process, including through engagement with Veterans at regional summits and townhalls, as well as through communications products on the VAC website. A key piece of advice being disseminated to Veterans is to apply now for disability benefits under the current system, rather than wait until April 1, 2019 to apply for the Pension for Life benefits.

Q2 When can a Veteran expect to receive a letter with the calculations for his/her individual benefit amounts?

A2 These letters will come in March 2019, with efforts to first address the calculations of those who have received a Disability Award, and will in future receive a newly calculated additional monthly payment.

Q3 Is there a plan to transition those Veterans who are in receipt of benefits under the Pension Act, to the new benefits?

A3 No, there are no changes for those in receipt of benefits under the Pension Act.

The Royal Canadian Legion representative requested that the Command Service Officers be included in assisting the Department in the development and testing of the prototypes for calculating the new benefits for each Veteran. He noted that these Service Officers are all ex-military, who are daily engaged in assisting Veterans with disability benefits applications. He noted specifically that the Service Officers will be in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the third week of October for training, and offered to provide this assistance with testing prototypes at that time.

Debrief on Homelessness Roundtable

The Director of Veterans Priority Programs Secretariat provided an overview of the VAC Roundtable on Homelessness, held on June 7, 2018 in Ottawa, which specifically focused on homeless and at-risk Veterans. The meeting brought together 65 local, regional, and national organizations to exchange and gain valuable information on the current state of homeless Veterans. The following highlights were provided:

  • The Roundtable on Homelessness was an opportunity to share ideas, to build on existing partnerships and create new ones. The two main objectives for the day were to:
    • define the issues around homelessness in order to provide effective crisis response to homeless Veterans and Veterans in crisis.
    • strengthen the capacity of Veterans Affairs Canada area offices and partner organizations to identify and connect with homeless Veterans and Veterans in crisis.
  • Minister O’Regan provided opening remarks. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development (Housing and Urban Affairs), provided an overview of the Government of Canada’s National Housing Strategy, in which Veterans are recognized as a vulnerable population for homelessness. VAC officials also presented on the elements of the departmental Strategy to address Veteran homelessness.
  • A recurring theme throughout the day was the needed assurance of a seamless transition from military to civilian life, and this is required at all stages of transition, including pre-release, during release and post release.
  • The issue of a Veterans ID Card was brought up repeatedly, with participants noting how this would facilitate service verification, as well as assist in providing a sense of identity and comradery.
  • Agreement was expressed on the notion of collaboration between local, national and grass root organizations as key to preventing and reducing Veterans homelessness.

The Strategy on preventing and ending Veteran homelessness is expected to be completed in the fall of 2018.

Roundtable Comments

The Minister’s Office representative noted that this teleconference had brought forward good questions and important feedback. At this point, there was no input regarding the next steps planned by the Minister’s Office for the advisory group.

The group would like to hold a follow-up teleconference to discuss a few items in more detail:

  • Caregiver Recognition Benefit. Concerns from the Mental Health Advisory Group about the eligibility criteria for this benefit had been recently submitted in writing to the Department, which the Advisory Group on Families will also consider.
  • Receive an update on the details of the implementation of the Veteran Family Program happening at the Military Family Resource Centres across Canada.
  • Upcoming priorities and ways forward for the Advisory Group on Families.

Closing Remarks

Co-chairs thanked the group and recognized the efforts and dedication of members.

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