Canadian Forces veterans fight against pension clawbacks, still waiting for government response

Approximately 4,000 former Canadian Forces members, who are now disabled, are subject to these deductions.

 By Robert Smol-THE HILL TIMES-September 17, 2007

A group of young disabled Canadian Forces veterans took their fight to Parliament Hill last week over what they say is the federal government’s ongoing refusal to reverse a clawback of injured veterans’ disability insurance.

“I am here to ask if there is any one Canadian citizen who thinks theft of my long-term benefits is okay,” said Ron Cundell, a disabled veteran who is currently suffering from an autoimmune disease which he contracted while serving during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

In stark contrast to other nations, all active Canadian Forces personnel are required to pay into a privately-administered disability insurance program called SISIP (Service Income Security Insurance Plan). In each case, the member pays 15 per cent of the premium with the government taking the rest. In the event that the veteran becomes disabled, the plan provides long-term disability assistance. However, any additional assistance that the disabled vet may receive from Veterans Affairs Canada is clawed back based on the amount that they are receiving from SISIP.

Approximately 4,000 former Canadian Forces members, who are now disabled, are subject to these deductions.

“I have been on SISIP long-term disability benefits for the last seven years,” said Mr. Cundell. “During this time a discriminatory and likely illegal policy has allowed SISIP to deduct every penny of my veterans affairs disability award from my long-term disability benefits. This policy has been the excuse that the federal government used to steal over $50,000 of my money over the last seven years.”

According to the 2006 financial statement posted on the Canadian Forces personnel Support Agency website, SISIP posted a net profit of $20-million in 2005 and an unallocated surplus of $263-million. Manulife, which administers SISIP, posted a net profit of almost $20-billion in 2006.

With their families in attendance, the younger vets spoke at length of their struggles trying to deal with both their physical and mental conditions and of their strained financial situations.

“As an unemployed intelligence officer, I found myself responsible for raising a family with two young children on 50 per cent of what I was earning while trying to get more support from Veterans Affairs in a convoluted and adversarial appeal system,” said Perry Gray, a 26-year-veteran of the Canadian Forces who is currently suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from his service in the former-Yugoslavia. “When the financial difficulties were added, in along with the increased medical expenses, my life quickly deteriorated and my family and I suffered immensely as we struggled to cope financially while dealing with my worsening medical condition.”

In the end, his family could no longer cope and the disabled veteran found himself alone trying to cope with his worsening condition.

“Financial reality hit home when my truck was repossessed and I was within days of loosing my house to the bank,” he said. “By some miracle, friends stepped in to save what was assuredly a downward progression to bankruptcy and homelessness.”

Yet, despite all that he has gone through, when comparing himself to other veterans, Mr. Gray considers himself one of the fortunate ones.

“I at least have a military pension, something that is paid only after 20 years of service,” he said. “I also sought help, which many young veterans do not seek and therefore must cope with their problems alone.”

This is not the first time the issue was raised on Parliament Hill. In November 2003, then Canadian Forces ombudsman, André Marin, released a report calling for an end to the deductions. The Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs unanimously endorsed Mr. Marin’s report. Unresolved, the issue was brought forth again by the new ombudsman, Yves Cote. Last year, a majority of MPs passed the Veterans First Motion which included the requirement for the government to “eliminate the unfair reduction of SISIP.”

Frustrated with the government dragging its feet, a class action lawsuit was filed in a Halifax court demanding that the government stop the deductions.

This was followed by a promise made in the House of Commons by the then-defence minister Gordon O’Connor (Carleton-Mississippi-Mills, Ont.) to “resolve the issue.” To this day, the issue remains unresolved.

In an Aug. 31 letter addressed to Denis Manuge, the disabled veteran who filed the lawsuit, the Minister of Veterans Affairs turned down the former soldier’s request for a meeting to try and discuss the issue, insisting in the letter that his senior policy adviser will “call you to hear your concerns and advice.” After two weeks, Mr. Manuge said he still wondering when he will receive the promised call.

“The argument time and again has been, ‘this all takes time,’” said Mr. Manuge.

But according to retired captain Sean Bruyea, a disabled Gulf War veteran, one need only look at the way government deals with long-term disability payments among politicians and civil servants.

“Members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats not only don’t have to pay for their long-term disability plan that is not allowed to deduct Pension Act and Canadian Forces Superannuation Act retirement pension amounts, but the MPs and senior bureaucrats receive four other types of insurance for free even while they are permanently disabled,” he said. “Not a bad plan and what does that cost the taxpayers?”

Veterans Affairs Canada said it could not answer questions about a National Defence program, and the Department of National Defence was not commenting last week.

news@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times