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Record of Discussion – Advisory Group on Families

August 16, 2017
Boardroom 1403, 14th floor,
66 Slater Street, Ottawa, Ontario

In Attendance

  • Sergeant (Retired) Alannah Gilmore (Co-chair)
  • Namita Joshi, True Patriot Love Foundation
  • Tamara Kleinschmidt, Trenton Military Family Resource Centre
  • Dave LeBlanc, RCMP Veterans Association
  • Ray McInnis, Royal Canadian Legion
  • Jenny Migneault
  • Laurie Ogilvie, Military Family Services
  • Nora Spinks, The Vanier Institute of the Family

Office of the Minister of Veterans Affairs

  • Sherry Romanado, Parliamentary Secretary
  • Ben Charland, Stakeholder Relations

Veterans Affairs Canada Officials

  • Faith McIntyre, Director General, Policy and Research (VAC Co-chair)
  • Michelle Morrison, Senior Analyst, Stakeholder Engagement and Outreach

Observer

  • Amanda Jane, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

Presenters

  • Paul Thomson, Director General, Service Delivery Modernization
  • Beth Smith-Cooper, Senior Advisor, Health Care and Rehabilitation Programs
  • Kirsten Johnson, Manager, Budget 2017 Implementation, Service Delivery
  • Johanne Isabel, National Manager of Mental Health Services, Service Delivery
  • Janet Nichols, Director, Online Services, Service Delivery
  • Tom Heckbert, Training Coordinator, Service Delivery
  • Dave Pedlar, Director of Research, Strategic Policy and Commemoration

Regrets

  • Yvonne Burke, Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association
  • Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Chris Lindford
  • Brigadier-General (Retired) Bill Richard
  • Karine Villeneuve, Operational Stress Injury Social Support, Department of National Defence

Opening Remarks

The Advisory Group on Families co-chairs formally welcomed members and introduced Parliamentary Secretary Sherry Romanado. Ms. Romanado delivered opening remarks, noting her pride in being a military mother, and her pleasure to be with the Advisory Group on Families for the meeting. She offered to be a frequent visitor at upcoming meetings to hear about and discuss the issues related to Veterans’ families.

Terms of Reference

The Minister’s Office staff presented the Advisory Group with revised Terms of Reference. The revisions provided additional clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of group members, especially with respect to information-sharing and the process for member dismissal. It was explained that the spirit and the intent of the terms of reference remain the same, but that the members’ code of conduct had been strengthened. Participants were advised that all members of each of the six ministerial advisory groups are being asked to sign the revised code of conduct. There were no concerns expressed and members agreed to sign the code.

Presentations

There were five presentations throughout the day:

  1. Service Delivery Review, by the Director General, Service Delivery Modernization;
  2. Caregiver Recognition Benefit, by the Manager of Budget 2017 Implementation, Service Delivery;
  3. Overview of Mental Health Services, by National Manager of Mental Health Services, Service Delivery;
  4. Overview and demonstration of My VAC Account, by Director of Online Services, Service Delivery; and
  5. Life After Service Study (LASS) Research Data, by Director of Research, Strategic Policy and Commemoration.

Service Delivery Review

The Director General of Service Delivery Modernization at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) presented on the status of the Service Delivery Review. He emphasized that the review focused on equitable rather than equal treatment, recognizing that services need to be designed to meet the diverse needs of Veterans. The service delivery model is moving towards a Veteran-centric approach from being program-centric. Policy changes to simplify and streamline VAC programs and benefits, business process improvements and closing the seam on Veteran transition from the Canadian Armed Forces are essential to achieving the full vision for service excellence.

As part of the service delivery review process, VAC:

  • assessed all methods of communicating directly to Veterans, including on-line, in person, mail and phone;
  • conducted site visits with regional offices across the country;
  • convened discussions with small groups of Veterans;
  • mapped the Veteran experience in navigating VAC benefits;
  • solicited advice for external expert advisors;
  • reviewed partnerships and contract arrangements;
  • reviewed the departmental performance measurement framework and service standards; and
  • completed a study on best practices of service delivery models.

Examples of specific initiatives underway as a result of the service delivery review include: an on-going review of letters sent to Veterans, simplification of application forms and application processes, introduction of a guided support model to help families navigate VAC assistance, and simplifying and diminishing the number of documents providing functional direction to staff. The Delivering Service Excellence: A Review of Veterans Affairs Canada’s Service Delivery Model report can be found here.

The presenter noted that VAC is focused on ensuring there is “no wrong door” for a Veteran to approach the department, and that service excellence means the Veteran experiences a positive interaction. He told the group that the first step is to ensure that VAC staff are encouraged to shift their focus to the Veteran having a positive experience, moving away from the focus on bureaucratic processes. He described the “guided support” pilot project within the department, which has anecdotally shown preliminary success. The guided support is provided by Veteran Service Agents for clients with moderate needs, those requiring more direct assistance and those needing follow-up.

The newly published Services and Benefits brochure was distributed to the group members.

The follow-up discussion included that following highlights:

  • There was interest in how the ‘cultural shift’ was going to happen for staff, to focus more on the Veteran experience and less on the bureaucratic processes. The presenter described there will be emphasis on internal communications with this messaging. He noted that VAC staff already have the intention to help, but are at times hindered by administrative burden. The department is taking action to ensure staff feel supported in erring on the side of helping the Veteran.
  • One group member noted a noticeably positive shift over the last couple of years of increasing numbers of adjudication claims being favorably assessed.
  • The presenter noted that it is a measure of success that more people are aware of VAC’s services, but this also creates more uptake of services and possible delays as the department adjusts to increasing numbers of people seeking services.
  • Regarding the Benefits and Services brochure, some members felt that it could still be improved with less complex language and that it was confusing in the manner that it was presented. Others thought it was a good start and helpful for staff to have as a tool to assist with explanations with their clients. The presenter noted that the document will be “evergreen”, and frequently updated and improved over time and he appreciated the feedback.
  • In general, it was suggested that improvements could be made in the Veteran and Veteran family experience: by ensuring VAC office spaces are warm and welcoming; by ensuring that VAC phone calls indicate that it is Veterans Affairs Canada on the caller id; that language in letters from VAC be plainer and more caring; and that families be included in decision-making and information-sharing as part of the Veteran’s case planning.

Caregiver Recognition Benefit (CRB)

The Senior Advisor for VAC Health Care and Rehabilitation Programs and the Manager of Budget 2017 Implementation provided an overview of the new CRB, which will come into effect on April 1, 2018, replacing the current Family Caregiver Relief Benefit. At that time, all eligible recipients of the current benefit who apply for CRB will automatically be approved. Key points presented about the new benefit:

  • The new CRB is designed to recognize the integral role of informal caregivers to the health and well-being of Veterans who live with an injury or disease.
  • An informal caregiver is considered to be any adult who provides support and care to a Veteran, whether a family member, friend or acquaintance, who is otherwise unpaid for this work.
  • The caregiver assists with daily activities and/or coordinates household tasks, appointments, etc., to address the Veteran’s ongoing needs.
  • The CRB is a monthly tax-free benefit of $1,000. The benefit is paid directly to the informal caregiver and is indexed annually on January 1.
  • The benefit is designed to provide caregivers with the flexibility to determine how best to use the funds to meet their caregiving needs.

Highlights of the questions and discussion following the presentation included:

  • The eligibility criteria of the existing Family Caregiver Relief Benefit will also be applied to recipients of the new CRB, including that the recipient must be 18 years old or older. The group felt this might exclude those younger family members who are currently providing care for a Veteran in their family, and recommended that there be a provision for younger people to apply for this benefit. The Co-chair will follow-up on this question with VAC subject matter experts.
  • There was concern with the existing eligibility criteria that it might exclude those who care for Veterans with mental health issues, as this type of care is not as obvious and easy to define as is caregiving for someone with physical needs.
  • Also in regards to eligibility, it was suggested that greater clarity could be attained by attaching a percentage of time to the eligibility criteria. For example, rather than simply ‘ongoing direction and supervision during performance of most activities of daily living”, the group noted that adding ‘80% of the time’ would be helpful for those who provide care to a Veteran with episodic mental health concerns. Also what is meant by “supervision” should be defined.
  • It was suggested that providing more concrete examples of possible situations where someone would be eligible to receive the CRB would allow more people to see how this could apply to them.
  • It was noted that more consideration should be placed on what the caregiver requires to care for the Veteran, rather than focusing on Veteran care needs alone.
  • The CRB should be linked to access to an education program that trains recipients how to provide caregiving.
  • It was noted that a medical referral is not required when applying for the benefit.
  • The Military Family Resource Centres will be offering online workshops for caregivers in the future.
  • It was noted that the National Caregiver Coalition in Canada is rebranding the term” caregivers” to “carers”.
  • It was suggested that all those who apply for the CRB should be asked automatically if they need case management services, if not already in place.
  • It was noted that Employment and Social Development Canada will be expanding the flexibility and number of days available for caregiving under its Employment Insurance benefits, which might also help caregivers of Veterans.

Summit 2016 Recommendations and Budget 2017 Group Discussion

The group discussed the progress made on the 10 recommendations presented by the Families Advisory Group at the Stakeholder Summit in October 2016. Budget 2017 has committed to several initiatives that respond in part to these recommendations: Expansion of the Veteran Family Program across all Military Family Resource Centres the new Caregiver Recognition Benefit, and the Veteran and Family Well-Being Fund.

Further discussion will be held at a teleconference in September 2017 to discuss any further recommendations that will be made to the Minister by the Advisory Group on Families.

On April 1, 2018, these 8 programs came into force. Learn more about these new and enhanced benefits and services.

Overview of Mental Health Services

The National Manager of Mental Health Services for VAC provided an overview of the mental health services available through VAC’s programming, highlighting those available to families. The information covered can be found in the Mental Health Fact Sheet.

Highlights of the discussion included the following points:

  • The network of Operational Stress Injury Clinics offers services in every province. Clinics are set-up to provide telehealth services. A suggestion was made that more satellite clinics or telehealth spaces could be established in rural areas within the Legions.
  • There are increasing numbers of people accessing the VAC Assistance Service, the Pastoral Outreach Program, and the OSISS Peer Support Program.
  • In general, group members feel there are some good programs in place for families, but the Department needs to improve the access to, and promotion of them.

My VAC Account

The Director of Online Services and the Training Coordinator for Online Services provided a presentation about My VAC Account, including showing a brief video. In general, the group was already aware of My VAC Account, and feels this is a great way for Veterans to have access to their information, application forms, and to receive alerts about new initiatives and services. Other discussion highlights included:

  • It would be helpful if family members could have their own access to My VAC Account, in order to access information about programs and services available to families.
  • The presenters noted that in future there will be the option for a Veteran to designate Power of Attorney to another individual, such as a spouse, who then can also access the Veteran’s My VAC Account.
  • Some concerns were raised about the sign-in process, and members noted the need to continue to ensure it is easy to use and welcoming, so that there is continued motivation to use the system.
  • Although it is a good way to provide information to Veterans, there is still a need for more in-person interactions.
  • Presenters welcomed all the feedback, and suggested that a follow-up teleconference to spend more time on this topic would be helpful to the group and as well as to VAC staff.
  • Presenters noted their intention to upgrade the tool on a continual basis, and to find ways to make it more useful for families.

Life After Service Survey (LASS) – Research Study

The Director of Research for VAC provided a description of the results from the LASS 2016 date. The LASS program of research is designed to further understand the transition experiences of Canadian Veterans as they move from military to civilian life. LASS 2016 expands on earlier studies from 2010 and 2013, offering the ability to see trends develop. The research is done in partnership with the Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces, and Statistics Canada. Highlights from the presentation are available in the LASS Info Brief which was distributed to the group. Key points are:

  • Since the last survey in 2013, there has been an increase in the percentage of those experiencing a difficulty with transition to civilian life (from approximately 25% to approximately 32%). This is being examined further by the Research Directorate.
  • Researchers looked at the data more closely in relation newly released Veterans, and those who were deployed in Afghanistan.
  • Some LASS 2016 statistical information pertains to families, but the group and the presenter agreed that more research is required and that surveys need to be completed by family members themselves.
  • The presenter noted that there is a study underway to examine the effects of a Veteran’s mental health injuries on their partners during the transition process. The results of this study will be communicated to the Advisory Group.

Next Steps and Closing Remarks

There will be a teleconference scheduled in September 2017 to further review recommendations regarding families. The co-chairs thanked the group for the valuable discussion and feedback, and the meeting was concluded.

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