Veterans Affairs Minister Thompson should be building trust and showing more compassion

If Veterans Affairs is being operated so well, why was there a need to create a veterans ombudsman office to address all the problems which don´t exist?

By Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES-Published February 4, 2008

When a Cabinet minister takes a public shot at any Canadian citizen, Canadians take notice. In this case, the minister of Veterans Affairs took aim at two Canadian veterans, (“Obvious facts missing from story, says Veterans Affairs Minister Thompson, The Hill Times, Jan 28, p.10). As one of two persons targeted in that personal attack, I went through a period of not-so-calm reflection after settling upon the sincere wish to thank the minister for reading our article. Did we get our facts wrong? Did we miss “obvious” facts?

The first is easier to answer, the latter is highly subjective. A better question would be: did we stand up for those who are least able to stand up for themselves: the dead, the dying, the wounded soldiers, and the families who care for them?

The minister used the term “overhead” in addressing the costs to deliver services to the injured soldiers and their families. It appears that the minister has taken a more narrow definition of “overhead” which does not include costs of labour and materials.

However, in our previous article (“Veterans Affairs: well-oiled machine or department in crisis?” The Hill Times, Jan 21, p. 34) we explained our use of the term to include all operating expenses as the total cost of delivering treatment and services to the disabled soldiers and their families. In that sense, we were consistent with the “Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) 2006-2007 Performance Report,” signed by the minister on pages one and six and yet again twice by the deputy minister.

The report states that “total operating expenses” for VAC were $916-million out of total expenditures of $3.037-billion. VAC shows similar percentages for at least the prior two years. That means that the department spends more than 30 cents to administer every dollar which is almost 15 times the 2.1 cent cost incurred by OHIP in managing each of Ontario´s healthcare dollars.

What is even more interesting is that employees´ salaries were $292-million for the entire department yet according to the same report “treatment expenditures for 2006-07 were $266.1-million.” Since ´operating expenditures´ for the healthcare (treatment) side of the department were $723-million, only 30 cents of every dollar makes it to the veterans care and 70 cents is absorbed by the Department´s operating expenses.

There are bigger questions here than debating the definition of ´overhead´ or throwing about rhetoric. The truth is that Canadians know that there is something ´wrong´ at Veterans Affairs. We know that there is too much red tape. We know the department is top-heavy and inefficient. We know that the front line staff and many of the more junior positions in Charlottetown, P.E.I., are overworked. We know that too many disabled veterans and their struggling families fall through the cracks.

That is why all parties endorsed the creation of a veterans ombudsman. The committee report, A Helping Hand for Veterans: Mandate for a Veterans Ombudsman, called for a legislated and truly independent ombudsman with real powers of investigation. Sadly, the process to create the veterans ombudsman has abandoned any of the substantive recommendations contained in the committee´s report.

Nevertheless, the question must be asked, if Veterans Affairs is being operated so well, then why was there a need to create an office to address all the problems which don´t exist?

The minister is likely correct in saying that spending on veterans has increased by $523-million or will have by the end of 2007-08. Approximately $400-million of that increase was legislated before the Minister took office. Half of that or $200 million was due to legislated increases in the monthly disability award of 7.1 per cent in 2006, 2.3 per cent in 2007 and 2.0 per cent in 2008. This may seem like a sweet deal for the disabled veterans until one realizes that the monthly award is calculated to mirror the greater of inflation or the after tax income of “unskilled members of the federal public administration.”

The remaining $200-million will have been paid out in one-time lump sum payments which replace the lifelong monthly disability payments for soldiers injured after April 1, 2006. Is such as golden handshake treating “our courageous men and women…with respect and dignity”?

I want to thank the minister for another thing. When a veteran asks for help or publicly identifies a problem, Veterans Affairs should make it personal. The care of disabled soldiers and their families should always be personal, except that this personal care should be characterized by compassion and respect and not defensive lashing out.

The bottom line is that the minister and the entire department exist for and because of veterans and their families. Even if one disabled veteran or their family says there is something wrong, then Veterans Affairs needs to listen and say, “How can we fix the problem? How can we help?” Perhaps then, dialogue can begin, trust can be rebuilt and services can be improved while directly including the very clients Veterans Affairs is legislated to serve.

Sean Bruyea is a retired captain and disabled soldier who served as an intelligence officer in the Canadian Forces for 14 years. He is now an advocate for other disabled veterans.

The Hill Times