Veterans Affairs too secretive, House should assess effectiveness: vet

But Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson says the New Veterans Charter represents ‘sweeping changes.’

 By Bea Vongdouangchan-THE HILL TIMES- January 19, 2009

When Parliament returns, the House Veterans Affairs Committee should conduct a thorough review of the department to see how effective its programs are, says a disabled veteran who believes that the department is not living up to its mandate “to provide exemplary, client-centred services and benefits that respond to the needs of veterans.”

Sean Bruyea, a disabled veteran of the Canadian Air Force, told The Hill Times last week that Veterans Affairs Canada has not undergone a thorough review of the department’s effectiveness and said it’s time it did.

“Unfortunately, Veterans Affairs has never been put under public scrutiny for the effectiveness of their programs,” said Mr. Bruyea, 44, who served for 14 years in the Air Force and became disabled as a result of his service in the Persian Gulf War between 1990 and 1991. Today, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and Gulf War illness.

“I think the only way that we can find out if the department’s doing its job is through open, public hearings, to have the standing committee go around the country and interview [people] hopefully on camera to find out how our government is treating its veterans and their families, especially the injured. These are some of the most marginalized persons in Canada and we have no idea if they’re being treated well.”

NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.), a longtime advocate for veterans and a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee said he would bring up the issue when Parliament returns.

“I would personally love to completely revamp the entire system,” he said. “I will be asking the committee and whoever the chair is, to ensure that we have a really serious look at the Department of Veterans Affairs, its physical structure and personnel structure. That, I think would be very helpful. This is nothing ill against anybody that works for DVA, I know that everyone I’ve spoken to has nothing but the sincere and courageous admiration for the men and women who work in the military, the problem is the bureaucracy they work in and that’s the log jam we want to break.”

Mr. Stoffer told The Hill Times that on a scale of one to 10, he would give the department a seven. He said some of his constituents and other veterans have told him that the process to obtain benefits under the New Veterans Charter is too bureaucratic and slow with some claims taking up to two years to process. He said the government needs to streamline the process in order to better serve veterans.

“They’re doing an okay job, but they could do so much better,” he said. “I know a lot of veterans who are getting first class service, but the problem is there are many, many veterans who are getting caught in the system and not getting the help and access that they need. We can do so much better.”

The Conservative government introduced the New Veterans Charter in 2006 in order to update the previous one which had been around for 60 years.

Janice Summerby, a media adviser with Veterans Affairs Canada, said last week that prior to the New Veterans Charter, there was no benefit that focused on “wellness or re-establishment into civilian life,” but those are the “two main goals” of the new charter. The New Veterans Charter includes programs for rehabilitation into civilian life, financial benefits for a permanent impairments and supplementary retirement benefits. It also allows for help with job placements, health benefits and death benefits for spouses or dependent children for deceased soldiers.

“The New Veterans Charter represents the kind of sweeping changes our modern-day veterans had been asking for. They wanted a more comprehensive approach to helping our men and women in uniform recover from injuries and illnesses,” Minister of Veterans Affairs Greg Thompson (New Brunswick Southwest, N.B.) told The Hill Times in an emailed statement.

“Parliamentarians of all political stripes realized it too and voted unanimously to pass the New Veterans Charter. We needed to keep pace with all the changes that have occurred since the original charter was developed 60 years ago. There really has been a change in how we address the needs of our modern-day veterans. What we are doing now far surpasses most other jurisdictions. We have other countries wanting to duplicate what we’ve accomplished because they know our system is one of the best in the world.”

Mr. Stoffer acknowledged that the New Veterans Charter is indeed a welcome change, but it is not enough to help veterans and needs to be updated again so that more veterans are receiving help without having to go up against a massive bureaucracy and numerous hoops.

“What we’ve said clearly is exactly what Mr. Thompson said two years ago that the Veteran’s Charter is a living document. If it needs to be improved and opened up for discussion and include things that are not there, it can be done,” he said. “What we’re basically saying to the government is the budget is coming down on Jan. 27. Please do not forget those that served our country and those that have served the country by making sure financial and human resources are in place so that they don’t have to do a Cirque de Soleil act to get help. Many veterans are being turned down for benefits.”

In his statement, Mr. Thompson said the New Charter “is a living document” and met with veterans groups earlier this month to discuss how the Charter can be improved. “We want it to keep up with the evolving needs and challenges of our modern-day veterans,” he said.

At issue for Mr. Bruyea, however, is the secret nature surrounding advice and recommendations on the Charter. He said that the department set up two advisory groups that “met in secret” and whose members have signed “quite strict” confidentiality agreements.

In addition, Mr. Bruyea said, the groups—The Special Needs Advisory Group and the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group—do not make their reports public.

“The irony of these new groups … is the fact that they report to senior bureaucrats who were instrumental in pushing forward this legislation and have told the public that there’s nothing wrong with the legislation,” he said. “All the recommendations are going to bureaucrats who have a vested interest in never changing anything.”

In response, Ms. Summerby told The Hill Times that the advisory groups consist of clients, professionals, and academics who help the department “identify any perceived gaps and recommend solutions.” She said that the meetings are not necessarily “secret” but rather they don’t post agenda minutes or announce meetings. They do, however, “provide information on request about membership and any documents they produce.”

Mr. Bruyea said that a policy of openness is needed, including in Parliamentary committees. He noted that the Veterans Affairs Committee held in camera meetings last year to discuss Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which should have been made public. PTSD, psychological injuries, depression and substance abuse are some of the largest issues facing the Canadian Forces, Mr. Bruyea said, which deserve public attention.

“The pretext of holding those hearings in secret was of course to respect the confidentiality of those willing to come forward. The problem with that is that there are many that will come forward publicly and will tell us the state of how they’re being treated both by the military and Veterans Affairs,” he said. “As long as they keep hiding behind these reasons to have secret meetings, then the public will never know and we’ll never be able to make proper policy decisions, especially if competition for money becomes more intense with the expected recession.”

Conservative MP Rob Anders (Calgary West, Alta.), chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the last Parliament, said it was “inappropriate” for Mr. Bruyea to attack the secret hearings.

“We had people who came forward who had been sufferers and those people preferred that those meetings were held in camera,” he said. “I would be hard pressed to see that anybody would want to attack PTSD sufferers from wanting to have a meeting in private to discuss their health issues. He’s free to attack those people if he wants but I think that’s inappropriate.”

Mr. Stoffer agreed that the meetings should have been held in camera because the witnesses requested it. Although public meetings could “possibly” create better policies, Mr. Stoffer said, it’s up to individual people to publicly talk about their health issues. “The committee recognized the request because don’t forget that a lot of men and women with PTSD still find it a bit of a stigma to admit that you have that,” he said. “There is still that element that says that as a military person seeing a counselor, you’ll think that your comrades will think you’re weak, and you have a problem. It’s getting better in the military, there’s no question about that. But the reality is, what happens to you when you leave the military because of a medical problem either physical or mental, what happens to you then?”

Mr. Bruyea said it’s Parliament’s and the department’s responsibility to look into these issues. “I believe that there’s far too many falling through the cracks to justify hiding from the truth, or finding out the truth,” he said. “If even one family is being abandoned by an insensitive system, it’s incumbent on our government, whether elected or the bureaucracy, to find out.”

The Hill Times