Veterans Affairs not extending benefits to recent low-income veterans

‘It is not just the initial injury, it’s the consequential aftermath or the secondary trauma related to the initial injury, and everything that goes around that,’ says retired naval Lieutenant Louise Richard

 By Robert Smol-THE HILL TIMES-September 3, 2007

Despite heavy lobbying from groups representing disabled veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs is standing firm and refuses to extend existing funeral and burial benefits beyond low-income world war and Korean War vets to include recent veterans.

The funeral and burial program was designed to ensure no Canadian veteran, lacking proper means at the time of death, end up being dumped in a so-called potter’s field. Under the current regulations, all honourably released veterans from the two world wars or Korea are entitled to apply to the funeral and benefits program if a financial review of their estate proves they died without the means to provide for a dignified burial.

“It is a program that we started in 1921 and the main legislative authority that comes for this is based on what is called the veterans funeral and burial regulations,” said retired Colonel Alex Bialosh, executive director for the Last Post Fund, the organization designated by Veterans Affairs Canada to administer the program. “It is a set of regulations produced by Veterans Affairs and approved through the Privy Council; and all the rules, regulations, and criteria on who is eligible and how much we pay and don’t pay is pretty well entrenched in those regulations.”

However, unlike their fathers who may have served in the world wars or Korea, Canadian Forces veterans who joined after 1953 normally cannot apply for the same funeral and burial benefits.

“Currently the only veterans that are eligible are basically the wartime and Korean war veterans,” Col. Bialosh told The Hill Times. “Modern day veterans, if they do not have a disability pension, are not otherwise eligible for the program.”

Janice Summerby, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs, added: “There isn’t a carte blanche eligibility for Canadian Forces veterans with low income.”

It is a disparity that lawyers and others who lobby on behalf of veterans find unacceptable. “It is surprising that this still goes on,” said retired Colonel Michel Drapeau, who practices law in Ottawa. “The best should apply for every one of them and what is the best time, and indeed the last time to show respect and dignity to the veteran and their family is at their burial.”

Others point to the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy as the cause for the unequal distribution of benefits. “It is unconscionable that veterans are separated into multiple classes not based on honour or sacrifice but upon how strong their political influence was to pressure government for just and fair benefits,” said retired Captain Sean Bruyea, a disabled Gulf War veteran who currently works as an advocate for other disabled veterans. “Veterans benefits should not be a political issue, but tragically, this is what has occurred as the bureaucracy works behind the scenes to quickly erode the strong, century-old legacy of caring for Canada’s veterans, alive or dead.”

According to Veterans Affairs, only two exceptions are granted to post-Korean war veterans of the Canadian Forces who require funeral and burial support. Those veterans who die while receiving earnings loss benefits or income support could qualify for funeral and burial support if they pass a “means test.” Ms. Summerby said post-Korean War veterans have received some assistance under this category.

However, Capt. Bruyea said the implementation of such “means testing” serves to obfuscate a person’s eligibility under the program. “Veterans Affairs frequently dodges questions of benefit accessibility by using the term ‘means testing’,” he said. ” What one finds is that the programs are so restrictive or so poorly advertised that the veteran and their family effectively do not have access to them.”

Other possible exceptions, available to younger disabled clients of Veterans Affairs, include the possibility of receiving some funeral and burial compensation if it is deemed that the veteran died as a result of a “pensioned condition.” The challenge, though, is proving, often after many years, that one’s death was in fact a result of the pensioned condition.

“It is not just the initial injury, it’s the consequential aftermath or the secondary trauma related to the initial injury, and everything that goes around that,” said retired naval Lieutenant Louise Richard, a former military nurse currently suffering from a series of disabilities related to her service in the Gulf War. “One gets a bullet wound, and we do surgery, but 10 years from now they may not be able to move that arm anymore or that half amputated leg, yet Veterans Affairs does not seem to acknowledge secondary trauma to the initial injury.”

And by extension, Veterans Affairs is less likely to acknowledge that the person’s death was directly attributable to this pensioned condition. “No one dies from paraplegia or 40 years after the amputation of an arm and certainly no medical doctor will write that a veteran died from psychological conditions like major depression, post traumatic stress disorder or an organic brain syndrome,” Capt. Bruyea said. “Very few conditions for which the government provides a disability award will actually be the cause of death.”

Indeed, last year, only 15 post-Korean war veterans qualified for burial assistance because of death resulting from a pensioned condition. It is a problem that is acknowledged by Veterans Affairs.

“You are going to get into a grey area certainly if you died from a service-related injury,” Ms. Summerby said. “There are always going to be challenges making that direct link and we are certainly open to looking at cause and effect.”

The Canadian Forces has also faced criticism for the coverage of funeral services. Former defence minister Gordon O’Connor (Carleton–Mississippi Mills, Ont.), now revenue minister, came under attack last May when the CF failed to fully compensate funerals for soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Mr. O’Connor at the time made assurances that the problem was administrative and that all funeral expenses for soldiers killed in Afghanistan would be covered.

For others, however, the question of ensuring that all low-income veterans receive a dignified burial is a topic that does not need to be reviewed.

“So what are we going to say to Afghanistan veterans 40 years from now, and what are we going to tell Gulf War veterans when they pass on?” said Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.), veterans affairs critic for the NDP. “If I was minister I would make the Department of Veteran Affairs rights very simple, where the only question would be, did you serve? And if the answer would be yes, then how can we help you?”

In recent months, various veterans organizations, including the Last Post Fund, have lobbied the government to allow all low-income veterans, regardless of when and where they served, to receive the same funeral and burial benefits.

“We are doing everything we can and have talked to the minister, the deputy minister and their staff and I am very optimistic that it will be achieved in the very near future,” Col. Bialosh said.

Capt. Bruyea, however, is less optimistic that there will be any quick and satisfactory results. “Veterans are seen as nothing more than ‘an alarming future liability scenario’ by many senior bureaucrats,” he said. “The result is that modern veterans, in many cases, have been forced to accept lower quality benefits than the civil servants who administer the veteran programs. Such insensitive attempts to delay benefits send the message that once our modern soldiers have placed their lives in harm’s way, they are expendable and not worthy of remembrance.”

For its part, Veterans Affairs believes equal access to funeral and burial benefits for modern day veterans is a matter that still needs to be reviewed.

“There have been calls to expand eligibility for the funeral and burial program to include additional low-income Canadian Forces veterans,” Ms. Summerby said. “Veterans Affairs recognizes the importance of this issue to our veterans and their families, and the department continues to review its policies dealing with funerals and burials.”

The Hill Times