May 7, 2008-Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs-Unfair Deductions from SISIP LTD

For c0mplete testimony, questions and answers, please click here

Captain (retired) Sean Bruyea, as an individual:

I thank the committee for taking the time to study the issue of the unfair deductions from soldiers’ SISIP long-term disability income. I served 14 years in the Canadian Forces as an intelligence officer. I have with me Mr. Manuge, the plaintiff for the proposed class action to stop the unfair deductions, and Mr. Driscoll, the legal counsel for the class action. Both will provide speaking notes to the committee.

On March 5, 2008, the Minister of Veterans Affairs made comments to this committee that the disabilities suffered by injured soldiers could be somehow lucrative. He went on to claim that in order to stop these profoundly and fundamentally unfair deductions, “the cost across government departments would be in the billions of dollars to readjust it.”

These two statements are highly inaccurate. The military has long retained soldiers who are injured. This compassionate trend has only increased in the past few years. These injured soldiers collect their full salary plus pain and suffering payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Those injured soldiers deemed of no use to the military.

These soldiers then are placed on the SISIP long-term disability plan, which pays 75 per cent of their income. The tragedy is that these soldiers never wanted to leave the military. They have lost their careers and a proud way of life not found in any area of civilian life. They will likely not be able to apply their military skills to a civilian job, even if they were able to work.

This extremely difficult transition is, for all disabled soldiers, the lowest point of their lives and the most painful, obstacle-filled transition they will ever face. In the midst of such overwhelming change, tragedy and pain, the government steps in and deducts Veterans Affairs pain and suffering payments from an already reduced income. One need only ask the 4,286 disabled soldiers affected by this unfair deduction, struggling each and every day, if their disability is or ever will be lucrative.

As to whether the unjust deductions would cost billions in required changes across all government, I offer the following: The two federal public service long-term disability plans, including the plan which serves all members of the Senate and the House, do not deduct Veterans Affairs Pension Act payments for pain and suffering. I have contacted every provincial and territorial workplace safety and compensation body throughout Canada and not a single one of them deducts Veterans Affairs Pension Act payments. Most, if not all, provincial LTD plans for the government employees are not allowed to deduct Veterans Affairs Pension Act payments.

The new veterans’ benefits replace this monthly payment with a one-time lump sum. This lump sum is not deducted from SISIP Veterans Affairs earnings loss program, but the monthly payments for pain and suffering continue to be deducted from both.

We are talking about a unique and distinct long-term disability plan for the Canadian Forces, and perhaps the RCMP, as concerns the isolated policy of deducting Veterans Affairs Pension Act payments from already reduced income loss payments. It is profoundly distasteful that our senior bureaucrats would feed such misinformation to a well-intentioned minister — information that attempts to make this issue far more complex than it is.

It may appear expensive at $270 million to $295 million, but we are talking about an amount of money that represents a time span of 25 years or more, going retroactively backwards and going forward. The amount works out to approximately $10 million a year to right this wrong. That is half of the $20 million annual maintenance bill of just one of Canada’s new military transport aircraft. Caring for half of one plane surely must be no more important or valuable than caring for the lives, restoring the faith and righting an injustice for more than 4,200 of Canada’s bravest men and women and their families.

Even the Chief Actuary of Canada from 1992 to 1998, Bernard Dussault, agrees. He prepared a report for the DND ombudsman, Yves Côté, on these unfair deductions:

“Considering that fairness is priceless, do apply without reservation the second recommendation of the Ombudsman Special Report —“

That recommendation referred to stopping the deductions.

“An argument could be made that the cost. . . may appear very large . . . but it is actually a relatively minimal one-time expenditure that would resolve a critical fairness issue affecting one of the most important groups of Canadians. . .”

This committee invited me to testify on the new veterans benefits two years ago, but I was too ill to attend. I await a follow-up to that invitation, but until that time I would like address one issue raised by our esteemed colleagues from the Royal Canadian Legion with respect to the SISIP long-term disability plan and the new veterans benefits.

The national leadership of the Royal Canadian Legion wants the Department of Veterans Affairs “to eliminate SISIP long-term disability rehabilitation and incorporate it into a single Veterans Affairs Canada program.”

I thank the legion for acknowledging that there are many shortcomings in the New Veterans Charter, as Louise Richard, Harold Leduc and I pointed out when we had the honour to testify before the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance three years ago this week. At that time, the department promised that the legislation is a living document and that there would be reviews of the legislation every few months. We have not seen any public or transparent reviews of the new benefits, let alone due process.

It would be short-sighted to dissolve SISIP long-term disability and vocational rehab, which have a proven track record over a 30-year period of adaptability and success. Please let us put the brakes firmly on any plan to give Veterans Affairs Canada more programs while they already have their hands full, and until such time as they prove they can resolve the existing shortcomings of, and handle, the New Veterans Charter.

I would like to thank the members of this subcommittee for inviting individual veterans to speak. It is extremely important for parliamentary committees to speak directly with veterans and their families to find out how government is treating them. Otherwise, it is up to the disabled veterans and their families to fight a nearly unbeatable “city hall” while we are disabled. Being an advocate and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression myself, I can tell you that speaking out in defence of veterans and their families carries an immense cost, both emotionally and physically. I can also tell you from personal experience that there is an even greater cost when certain bureaucrats in the government seek reprisals against those who speak out.

Veterans Affairs has unparalleled power over the lives of disabled veterans and their families. Reprisals need not be heavy-handed to cause great harm to a disabled veteran struggling to make it from day-to-day.

I urge committee members to see through the myriad of obstacles put in the way of granting justice to these 4,200 disabled soldiers. To quote our first DND ombudsman, André Morin, who shed light on the unfair SISIP deductions: “It is a maxim of good government that technical obstacles never be allowed to impede doing the right thing.”

I thank you for inviting us here today. We are open to your questions.