Cheating; our injured soldiers

by Sean Bruyea-ESPRIT DE CORPS-May 2008-p. 12


Whether or not we agree with the Afghan mission, Canadians are united in standing behind the returning injured soldiers and their families. While the CF has retained many injured soldiers and even provided retraining into other trades, once the uniform comes off, many disabled soldiers have to fight another war, this time with Canadian bureaucrats.

Since October 2000, changes to veterans’ legislation allowed all serving wounded soldiers to collect their flail salary plus pain and suffering payments from Veterans Affairs. If the soldier is too wounded as to be unemployable, he/she is forced out of the military and put on SISIP, the insurance plan paid into by all CF members, which pays a reduced salary of 75 per cent of the soldier’s previous income. To add insult to injury, Veterans Affairs’ pain and suffering payments are deducted from the new, lower income.

This injustice attracted the attention of Andre Marin, former military ombudsman. Marin submitted a report to the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (SCONDVA) in 2003 calling for an end to the deductions. SCONDVA unanimously passed a motion imploring the minister of National Defence to stop the deductions. Ironically, the current minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay, as well as the current prime minister, president of the Treasury Board and minister of Veterans Affairs were all associate members of that committee when the motion was passed.

Five successive follow-up reports and letters from both Marin and his successor, Yves Cote, have called on the government to cease these “fundamentally” and “profoundly unfair” deductions. The House of Commons went so far as to pass the Veterans First Motion in the fall of 2006, which called for an end to the unfair deductions. Minister O’Connor subsequently promised to resolve the issue.

And yet nothing has been done to right this wrong. The reason is simple: bureaucrats standing in the way have little idea what it means to serve in the military let alone suffer a life-changing disability. Ironically, these same senior bureaucrats receive free disability plans–paid for by Canadian taxpayers–and their plan does not deduct pain and suffering payments.

The bureaucrats have instead constructed a Maginot Line of obstinacy and insensitivity. As a result, a class action lawsuit has been filed to stop the unfair deductions. According to an affidavit from Andre Bouchard, the president of SISIP who in fact served in the military for almost 30 years, if SISIP were to stop deducting pain and suffering payments, the result would be “exorbitant premiums which would impose significant hardship on the members of the Canadian Forces.”

But how “exorbitant” would the higher premiums actually be? Currently, a corporal in the military pays approximately $9.40 per month for the long-term disability policy. Bouchard predicts that premiums would increase by 40 per cent, or just $3.76 per month–the price of a latte.

Minister MacKay claimed the government cannot comment on the issue as it is before the courts. This did not stop Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson from telling the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in March that righting this wrong would “take a complete overhaul of the entire system” and the cost “across government departments would be in the billions of dollars to stop the deductions.”

Such fearmongering is music to the bureaucrats’ ears and a horror film for any governing party. However, those who informed Minister Thompson on this matter are clearly wrong.

What senior bureaucrats 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.

Even the MP’s long-term disability plan does not allow the deduction of Veterans Affairs pain and suffering payments. Why the double standard?

During his term Cote commissioned an independent report to verify whether the deductions were unfair. The report concluded that “considering that fairness is priceless, do apply without reservation” the recommendation to stop the deductions. According to the author, Bernard Dussault, the cost of $10 million annually or approximately $290 million over the lifetime of the 4,200 injured soldiers affected is a “relatively minimal one-time expenditure that would resolve a critical fairness issue.” Dussault should know; he was the chief actuary of Canada from 1992 to 1998.

Our disabled soldiers deserve better than discrimination. If not, one day 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.

Sean Bruyea, a retired captain and disabled soldier who served 14 years in the CF, is now an advocate for other disabled veterans.