Stop the insanity: let’s end discrimination against disabled Canadian soldiers

Many disabled soldiers suspect their sacrifices are less important than sacrificing those dollars necessary to pay for the human cost of war.

By SEAN BRUYEA-The Hill Times-Published April 7, 2008

Whether or not we agree or disagree with the Afghan mission, Canadians are united in standing behind the returning injured soldiers and their families who need all the support available. That is why it is shocking to hear the federal minister, responsible for the “care, treatment or re-establishment” of wounded soldiers, imply that it could be “lucrative” to have a disability.

Last month, Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson appeared in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. The committee noted the minister had omitted in his presentation the issue of ending the deductions of Veterans Affairs payments for pain and suffering from the soldiers’ long-term disability plan known as SISIP. The minister hypothetically responded: ” ‘I am disabled, so I should get that little extra benefit’. The other thing is…some in the insurance business will argue that if you make it lucrative for someone to have a disability, it has a downward effect on the program as a whole.”

The comment escaped all in opposition except for NDP MP Peter Stoffer, his party’s veterans affairs critic, “I am incensed that Minister Thompson would infer that making changes to SISIP could be lucrative for someone to have a disability,” said Stoffer, who is also vice-chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “This statement is completely insulting to military personnel who were injured while serving their country and to all disabled Canadians. At no time is it ever lucrative to have a disability. Thompson should immediately apologize.”

Although other Parliamentarians remained silent, disabled soldiers were quick to respond. “It infuriates me,” explains Dennis Manuge, the injured soldier who initiated a class action lawsuit to stop the unfair deductions. “It perpetuates the shame we feel as military members when we are disabled. We are quickly labelled as ‘sick, lame, and lazy.’ We try hard to shake that kind of discrimination but [the minister’s comments] are feeding right into that.”

Others in the field of disability take similar offence. “I can’t imagine any scenario … that anybody would consider having a disability lucrative,” explains Tom Merriam, president and CEO of Abilities Foundation, an Easter Seals affiliated charity in Nova Scotia assisting people with physical disabilities. “It’s a very unfortunate choice of words. Not only anybody with a disability but anybody whose role is to serve people with disabilities would find that terminology quite inappropriate.”

The minister’s comments only fuel what disabled soldiers have long suspected: that soldiers’ sacrifices are less important than sacrificing those dollars necessary to pay for the human cost of war. There is little doubt that the minister was likely repeating words fed to him by senior bureaucrats who have been the obstacles to righting this fundamental injustice since an all parties unanimously voted to stop the deductions back in 2003.

What is remarkable are the minister’s subsequent comments. The issue of a single unique and distinct insurance plan, SISIP, and its isolated policy of deducting pain and suffering payments was tangled with perceived inequities to be found in every income replacement program at all levels of government throughout Canada. “Therefore, that clawback position [for SISIP] exists and it would have to be adjusted—actually, the cost across government departments would be in the billions of dollars to readjust it,” the minister explained, “It would take a complete overhaul of the entire system to allow that change to occur. It would be too expensive.”

Perhaps not as obvious as the slap in the face that disabilities are “lucrative,” this comment is far more damaging to disabled persons at a more profound level. This is about hope to improve the system. The rigorous standards all disability programs place on disabled individuals often worsen the condition of those applying. “It’s awfully overwhelming,” says Mike Raymond, who is being forced out of the CF due to his disabilities. Raymond has served in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and Afghanistan. “These are tough programs to get in the first place and then the clawback issue kicks in.”

Would it be “too expensive” and would it “take a complete overhaul of the entire system” to stop the discriminatory deductions? This is the first time anyone has ever publicly claimed such a heavy price. What started out as a $5 million annual bill to stop the deductions in 2003 escalated into a one-time cost of up to $295 million and has now ballooned into a multi-billion-dollar nightmare.

Such disinformation is a calculated risk on the government’s part which could easily backfire if Canadians are given the facts.

The first two numbers were correct. It was originally going to cost $5-million annually. The government delayed fixing the problem so long that more disabled soldiers entered the system (Afghanistan?) raising the cost to $10-million annually. Since about $95-million is retroactivity, the remaining $200-million pays for all injured soldiers on the plan until they reach age 65, or about another 20 years ($10-million per year multiplied by 20 years, equals $200-million).

One government employee who wishes to remain anonymous indicated that since the government writes the rules for insurance, the entire $200-million can be promised on an annual basis, thereby not requiring the money up front.

The previous DND ombudsman, Yves Cote, commissioned an independent report to double check whether the deductions were ‘unfair.’ Bernard Dussault wrote, “Considering that fairness is priceless, do apply without reservation the … recommendation [to stop the deductions]. An argument could be made that the cost of the … recommendation may appear very large when compared to its original estimate, but it is actually a relatively minimal one-time expenditure that would resolve a critical fairness issue affecting one of the most important group of Canadians, i.e. those who, through their job, risk their lives. This is a priceless risk that is mostly paid for only to those actually affected by the military risk as opposed to all those exposed to it.”

Dussault should know. He was the chief actuary of Canada from 1992 to 1998 and is responsible for signing off on the Government Actuarial Reports for CPP, Old Age Security, the CF and Public Service Life Insurance and Pension Plans not to mention the Pension Plan for MPs.

What senior bureaucrats in this matter likely fail to understand is the fundamental difference between income replacement and damages compensating members for pain and suffering. SISIP is an income replacement plan. Veterans Affairs payments are paid to compensate for pain and suffering. Fair practice does not allow one category to be deducted from the other category. SISIP is reportedly the only long-term disability plan to cross that line.

All Members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats who are standing in the way of fixing this problem need merely turn to their own long-term disability plan paid for by Canadian taxpayers. Chapter 4.8.15 of the Insurance Administration manual states, “Long-term disability benefits will not be offset by: (a) disability payments to a veteran under the Pension Act.”

There is no need to overhaul all government programs. Like the MPs’ disability plan, Workers Compensation in Ontario, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba, and New Brunswick are also not allowed to deduct Veterans Affairs Pension Act payments. To imply otherwise is a bad faith insult to the very specific population of 4,000 soldiers affected by the unfair deduction.

And yet the deductions continue in spite of more than five reports and letters from two different DND Ombudsmen, calls from the Royal Canadian Legion and a majority vote in the House of Commons in the fall of 2006 to stop the deductions. Interestingly, Minister Thompson, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay were all associate members of the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs in 2003 when it unanimously urged then Minister of National Defence to stop the deductions.

To do otherwise sends a most tragic message of lost hope to our disabled soldiers and disabled Canadians in general. “We are concerned about the general public awareness [of] the contribution persons with disabilities make to our communities,” continues Mr. Merriam. “It is really important that you do what you can to do those people justice in the way they are described so as to not demean their situation. It is bad enough dealing with the disability without dealing with the fallout from the disability.”

Shame on those bureaucrats who misinform our elected officials. Shame on those Parliamentarians who swallow whatever our senior bureaucrats toss in the pond. Our disabled soldiers deserve better than discrimination. If not, one day the Canadian Forces recruiting centres may be empty. Canada will then have no one willing to pay the price to protect us because Canada was not willing to pay the price to take care of our daughters and sons when they returned from war. Please, stop the unfair deductions from soldiers’ long-term disability now.

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