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Record of Discussion – Policy Advisory Group Meeting

May 3, 2017
Québec Room, Lord Elgin Hotel,
100 Elgin Street, Ottawa, ON

In Attendance

Policy Advisory Committee Group Members:

  • Brian Forbes, National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada (co-chair)
  • Commodore (Retired) Andrea Siew (co-chair)
  • Major (Retired) Mark Campbell
  • Michel Houle, Veterans UN-NATO Canada
  • Master Warrant Officer (Retired) William MacDonald (via teleconference)
  • Luc O’Bomsawin, Aboriginal Veterans Autochtones
  • Brigadier General (Retired) Joe Sharpe
  • Brad White, Royal Canadian Legion
  • Major-General John Milne, Canadian Armed Forces

Minister’s Office:

  • Christine Tabbert, Chief of Staff to the Minister (Visit)
  • Jeff Valois, Director of Parliamentary Affairs, Office of the Minister (Visit)
  • Ben Charland, Stakeholder Relations, Office of the Minister

Veterans Affairs Canada Officials:

  • General Walter Natynczyk, Deputy Minister (Visit)
  • Karen Ellis, Associate Deputy Minister (Visit)
  • Faith McIntyre, member, Director General, Policy and Research, representing Bernard Butler, Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Commemoration (VAC co-chair)
  • Mary Nicholson, Director, Health Care and Rehabilitation Programs, Service Delivery Branch (Presenter, via teleconference)
  • Stephanie Adams, National Rehabilitation Consultant, Service Delivery Branch (Presenter, via teleconference)
  • Katherine Spencer-Ross, Director, Stakeholder Engagement and Outreach
  • Émily Soulières, Stakeholder Engagement and Outreach

Observer:

  • Sharon Squire, Deputy Ombudsman, Office of the Veterans Ombudsman

Regrets:

  • Bernard Butler, Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Commemoration (VAC co-chair)

Opening Remarks

The Chief of Staff (COS) to the Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) opened the meeting by thanking the members for the work they have done so far, as well as the work they continue to do. She acknowledged that many may have been disappointed by the content of Budget 2017, given that the recommendations of the Policy Advisory Group (PAG) may not have been fully reflected. Members were assured that the Minister values the input from the PAG and finds it extremely helpful. The COS also noted that, as far as the Minister is concerned, all recommendations from this group are still on the table and work needs to continue on those in order to achieve the desired results.

The co-chairs and members indicated they were encouraged by the comments from the Minister’s Office but questioned the purpose and utility of the PAG. Members were particularly dissatisfied that their Chapter One recommendations, presented at the October 2016 Stakeholder Summit, were not all reflected in the Budget and hoped that this meeting would provide them with the status of these recommendations. Members also highlighted that information on issues of interest to Veterans is not reaching the community and that strategic communications need to be a priority. The co-chairs finally stressed that at the end of the meeting, members need to feel confident that this advisory group is moving in the right direction, in a trusting environment, and that a two-way dialogue exists with VAC.

Members were assured that their concerns were heard and that the Minister is really looking forward to hearing the outcomes of the day’s discussions.

Budget 2017 – Financial Items

An overview of Budget 2017 outcomes was provided to the group. It was the consensus of members that the budget failed to address the question of the financial disparity that exists between the Pension Act and New Veterans Charter compensation for disabled veterans. In addition, members agreed that VAC has delayed addressing issues that have an impact on the financial compensation for disabled Veterans, particularly establishing a form of lifetime pension as an option to the lump sum payment as delineated by the Minister’s mandate letter.

Members expressed their desire to be consulted particularly on what a pension for life would look like. On this issue, members noted there is a great deal of confusion within the community about language in the Budget document representing the pension as a division of the Disability Award. The members stressed that they had already spent one year talking about life long financial security and this did not mean an apportionment of the Disability Award.

Members also highlighted the confusion that exists in regards to the benefits that are available to Veterans. A strategic communications piece is needed to help veterans navigate their way through those.

On convergence (seamless transition), there was a general misunderstanding as to what it is and what options are being considered in this regard. VAC officials confirmed that as of now, the policy development on this is still ongoing and therefore every option is still on the table. Co-chairs reminded VAC officials of their previous recommendation to “Eliminate Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP) Long Term Disability (LTD) / Vocational Rehabilitation (VOC Rehab) and place all LTD and VOC Rehab under VAC for all service attributable and non service attributable medical releases with no premiums – ONE PROGRAM/ONE SERVICE DELIVERY MODEL”.

On the new Education and Training Benefit, members recommended an evaluation of the impact of this new program on SISIP. They were pleased with this program and that it is a non-injury or illness related program, but more communication is needed to clarify it.

On the enhancement of the Caregiver Recognition Benefit, members thought that the benefit payable directly to the caregiver is an improvement. However, some members were not satisfied with the amount associated with this benefit, as it does not come close to covering the salary of a spouse that had to leave his or her job to take care of the ill or injured Veteran. It was the view of members that VAC did not “need to re-invent the wheel” as the use of the Pension Act’s Attendance Allowance grades and amounts would provide more appropriate compensation levels for the caregivers of seriously disabled Veterans. It was recognized that one size does not fit all, given the different degrees of attendance required by seriously disabled Veterans and the loss of income suffered by individual families.

Members were reminded that the Caregiver Recognition Benefit is intended as recognition and not compensation for lost wages. Finally, members were concerned about the eligibility for this benefit and shared their interest in being consulted further on it.

On the expansion of the access to the Military Family Resource Centres for Medically Released Veterans’ Families, members were disappointed that full access was still not reached and suggested that the proposed access is discriminatory.

Finally, on the creation of a Centre of Excellence on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Related Mental Health Conditions, members criticized the low investment for this included in Budget 2017.

Career Impact Allowance – Budget 2016 change and calculation of assessment/grade levels

A presentation was provided on the Career Impact Allowance (CIA).

Responding to a question from members on the perceived movement between CIA grade levels, VAC officials stated that the modelling showed a large proportion of the 2,500 CIA recipients have seen their grade 3 assessment move to a grade 2, which means an increase to their CIA payments. They also stated that although a bulk of recipients has already seen their reassessment completed, a few Veterans’ assessments remain to be done and will be completed in the next few months. Changes to CIA calculations will be paid as of April 1, 2017. VAC officials committed to sharing actual statistics on the changes between grade levels with PAG members at the next meeting.

On the process related to the determination of CIA grade levels, members expressed concern that Veterans do not understand the process as it is currently being communicated to them. VAC officials stated that although details on the changes to the calculation process are included as part of the decision letters to recipients, more information on this will be included on the departmental website.

Some members were further concerned that the Quality of Life Assessment is now being used to determine CIA grade levels of recipients, as they believed this tool is far from precise and could lead to arbitrary decisions being made by VAC officials. However, VAC has conducted external consultations on this matter, and is very comfortable with the use of the Quality of Life Assessment in the determination of CIA grade levels.

The members noted that it was their understanding that the implementation of the Budget 2016 changes to CIA was transitional and that a more responsive adaptation of CIA is currently under consideration. It was emphasized by the members that the PAG recommendations involved the establishment of a “probable career earnings loss” approach, to address the fundamental question as to what a veteran would have earned in the veteran’s military career if the veteran had not been injured.

The Deputy Minister joined the meeting during the CIA discussion. He expressed his concern regarding the letter that had been sent to eligible individuals and was issuing a letter of apology. He indicated that forecasted recipients in the top two tiers could go from 11% to 32%. This was very well received by PAG members who saw this as an indication that the system truly is starting to work and that this will enhance the security and wellbeing of Canadian Veterans. However, members noted that the CIA still does not accurately evaluate the loss of wages and were invited to continue to engage VAC on this and similar issues. Members enquired about the process for Veterans who are no longer case managed. The Deputy Minister noted they should contact the department and that VAC is piloting a guided support project that directly engages Veteran Services Agents (VSA) and it is hoped that the project will be implemented across the country. Finally, the Deputy Minister recognized that a lot of work still needs to be done to enhance the life of Veterans, but also stated that the department is working in the right direction, rolling out in excess of 700 million dollars and programs in Budget 2017 to help support all Veterans, not only injured ones.

Policy Advisory Group Chapter One Recommendations – Comparison with Budget 2017

While comparing the PAG’s Chapter One Recommendations with Budget 2017, members determined that most of their recommendations were not addressed or at least not yet fully achieved. Members did however acknowledge that some changes introduced in Budget 2017 were not part of their recommendations and were very positive, such as the new Education and Training Benefit. Overall, members felt that some progress had been made, but nowhere near as much as they would have hoped, given the extensive work they put into their Chapter One recommendations.

The members reinforced that their Chapter One recommendations stand. Moving forward, the group reiterated its key principles and objectives to guide its work:

  • Addressing the financial disparity between the Pension Act and New Veterans Charter compensation for disabled Veterans;
  • Implementing further recommendations from the Policy Advisory Group to ensure that no Veteran under the NVC would receive less than a Veteran under the Pension Act for the same disability or incapacity;
  • Reduced complexity of financial benefits;
  • Need for options and choices for Veterans;
  • Need to make monthly payment attractive – create a mix of the two payment options (lump sum and monthly);
  • Provide a clear distinction between pension and Disability Award (financial security versus recognition of service); and
  • Focus on being Veteran-centric and avoid the perception of winners and losers.

Members noted that the severely injured need to be the focus when comparing the Pension Act and the New Veterans Charter (NVC) and that the NVC should be reviewed regularly and treated as an evergreen document that adjusts to change.

Finally, it was noted by members that the Exceptional Incapacity Allowance is still on the table and that it should be for a lifetime and non-taxable to allow a reasonable standard of living for affected Veterans.

Next Steps and Closing Remarks

Members said they felt reassured after the day’s positive meeting that their concerns were being heard and were now confident that the Advisory Group was heading in the right direction. VAC officials said there was never any doubt that all six advisory groups are very important and were looking forward to continuing these timely discussions with PAG members.

Next steps:

  • Co-chairs to write a letter addressed to the Minister on the Policy Advisory Group’s thoughts on Budget 2017; and
  • The PAG to reconvene during the last week of June.

Forward agenda items:

  • Mandate commitments, including pension for life and streamlined benefits;
  • Convergence;
  • Veteran Health Strategy short term proposals;
  • Centres of Excellence: A financial explanation;
  • Second Centre of Excellence discussion;
  • Service Delivery Review briefing;
  • Career Impact Allowance implementation – Actuals for changes to CIA grades 1, 2 and 3; and
  • Accrual Accounting – projected versus what actually happens (with examples).
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