Defence Minister O’Connor promises to resolve injured soldiers’ pension issue

But NDP MP Peter Stoffer says two DND ombudsmen have asked that the SISIP for injured soldiers be fixed and wants to know what the government is waiting for.

 By Robert Smol-THE HILL TIMES-April 2, 2007

Dennis Manuge, a former Canadian Forces corporal who was released by the military in 2003 due to a service-related disability, filed a class action lawsuit in a Halifax, N.S., court earlier this month protesting the claw backs that several disabled veterans are subject to when receiving benefits under the Service Income Security Insurance Plan (SISIP), a privately-administered obligatory insurance plan for all members of the Canadian Forces.

“In January 2002, while still serving, I was awarded a Veteran Affairs disability pension of 20 per cent with the current dollar value of that pension is $444 a month,” he said in an interview last week with The Hill Times. “So as a still-serving currently disabled member of the Canadian Forces, I received my entire Canadian Forces pay and a veteran affairs disability pension on top of that.”

However, this financial arrangement was to drastically change when Mr. Manuge was medically released and was no longer receiving his military pay.

“I applied for long-term disability benefits through SISIP and I was informed that my disability payments would equal about 75 per cent of my last rate of pay in the Canadian Forces,” he said. “Then I realized I had to declare my Veterans Affairs disability pension and they were going to deduct that from my 75 per cent every month for 24 months that I was eligible to receive long term disability.”

“What a lot of people don’t know is that SISIP is the first payer,” said Sean Bruyea, a former air force intelligence captain who is currently disabled as a result of his service during the 1990-91 Gulf War. “A soldier has to go to SISIP first and what this means is that Veterans Affairs isn’t on the hook for anything.”

It is a situation that, according to Mr. Manuge, is shared by thousands of other disabled veterans many of whom are in desperate medical and financial need.

“There is an estimated four to 5,000 disabled veterans many of whom suffer from emotional stress and disability and can’t speak for themselves,” he said.

By contrast, members of the federal civil service, who participate in a similar insurance plan, are not subject to the same claw backs.

“If a public service employee is disabled, for whatever reason, and they are collecting Pension Act repayments then these payments are not allowed to be deducted from their long term disability insurance,” said Mr. Bruyea.

From the time they enroll, members of the Canadian Forces are obliged to buy into a privately administered disability insurance program called SISIP. Fifteen per cent of the payments have to be assumed by the soldier himself with the remaining 85 per cent taken on by the government.

“We are the only force in NATO and probably the world where soldiers have to pay for their own disability insurance,” said retired Brigadier General Joseph Gollner. “And if you are injured it all starts off with SISIP paying and then Veterans Affairs picking up the rest.”

“I remember when I first joined the Forces they had the SISIP salesman come around and all of a sudden it was compulsory for us to sign on,” said Mr. Bruyea. “So I had the sales pitch and then was forced to pay for it–I was terribly offended.”

For Mr. Manuge the class action law suit came at the end of an exhaustive letter writing campaign where he attempted to address the problem to the Prime Minister, the Minister of National Defence, and the Treasury Board, among others. A campaign which, in the words of Mr. Manuge, produced nothing but “kiss-off letters” from politicians and government departments.

“The only correspondence I had ever received from the Minister of National Defence was a postcard with the Canadian Forces symbol on it and a reply on the back saying that the minister has received my correspondence. Personally that was the ultimate slap in the face,” he said.

At the same time, both the former and the current Canadian Forces Ombudsman were attempting to get the government to deal with the problem, a process that began in 2003 with the publication of a Special Report on Unfair Deductions from SISIP Payments to Former Canadian Forces Members.

“It really is a sad state when an injured soldier and his colleagues have to do a class action lawsuit to fight the government and get what is rightfully theirs,” said NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.), his party’s veteran’s affairs critic and Mr. Manuge’s MP. “They have a $14.2-billion surplus and 1.8 per cent of that surplus would have solved this problem to help injured soldiers and we stand up in the House of Commons to say, ‘Support our troops,’ but we don’t support them when they take the uniform off.”

Said Mr. Stoffer last week in the House: “Two DND ombudsmen asked that the SISIP for injured soldiers be fixed. The House passed a motion recommending that the SISIP for injured soldiers be fixed. For less than two per cent of the federal surplus, this problem could have been fixed and these soldiers would not need to go to court to get the money they are rightfully owed. Why did the government so carelessly and callously ignore the needs of these injured soldiers?”

Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor (Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ont.) responded: “Mr. Speaker, this issue has been in existence since 2003. The previous government did not resolve the issue. We now have the recommendations and we will resolve the issue.”

When asked to comment further on the class action lawsuit the Defence Minister’s Office referred The Hill Times back to the statements the minister made in the House on March 27 where he stated that ” we now have the recommendations and we will resolve the issue.”

The Hill Times