Sleight-of-hand Tricks Once Again at VAC

Veterans Affairs is trying to slip under the summer radar a sleight-of-hand approval for regulations on injured soldiers’ benefits. We should not be surprised.

By Sean Bruyea

The Hill Times: Published July 18, 2011

OTTAWA—Just as the sun will rise and we all will one day die, Veterans Affair Canada can always be counted upon to pull a fast one. The federal department mandated to care for injured and retired military and their families is trying to slip under the summer radar a sleight-of-hand approval for regulations on injured soldiers’ benefits.

We should not be surprised.

More than 90 per cent of Canada’s approximately 700,000 serving and retired Canadian Forces members do not belong to any advocacy organization. This is why it is paramount for Veterans Affairs to truly reach out, engage and risk being changed by the needs and perspectives of all veterans and their families.

Should the 2006 regulations as well as the new regulations released last week in the Canada Gazette be changed? Certainly, but VAC’s heavy-handed steamroller approach also fails to live up to a promise of transparent and accountable government. All regulations must be created and finalized in strict accordance with Cabinet and Treasury Board rules. As these rules unequivocally state, merely posting a draft on Canada Gazette “is not a substitute for consultation.”

Yet, this is exactly what VAC is doing. The department admits that it merely “briefed” a very limited and select body of stakeholders, mostly through media releases outlining the intended legislation back in September 2010. The department has excelled in refusing to consult bilaterally with anyone on not just these regulations, but VAC has ignored just about every recommendation from committees and advisory groups for the past six years or more.

A closer look at the regulations would reveal some “very upsetting” details, laments Don Leonardo, president and founder of VAC has previously claimed that “the most seriously injured” veterans would earn a minimum of $58,000 annually. What the regulations affirm is that over a 10-year period, only a total of 219 will receive this amount. Furthermore, only 128 annually will receive the miserly managed allowance for the most seriously wounded, the majority of whom, if not all, receiving the minimum amount of $500 monthly.

One of the professed cornerstones of these four programs is a minimum long term disability income of $40,000. The regulations reveal that this is only $3,000 above the Statistics Canada “low-income cut-off.” A mere 245 injured soldiers annually will benefit. As Leonardo explains, “where is the fairness when you have to live just above the poverty line?”

It gets worse. A reserve soldier with less than 180 days service suffering any disabling injury would be guaranteed a minimum of only $32,400 annually, well below the “poverty line.”

Make no mistake about this; it is all about money and the perception thereof. When scandals involving poor treatment of veterans erupted last year, the Conservative government silenced critics with the boast that $2-billion would be dedicated to the new programs. The regulations state otherwise.

The total cost for 10 years of all programs is a mere $130-million. VAC boasts that government will then benefit by taking back $40-million in taxes from the empty pockets of the most disabled soldiers. The actual investment from the new programs is a mere $9-million annually. “It’s all just smoke and mirrors,” commented Leonardo.

Equally “upsetting” is that it took five years to bring just four changes to what VAC insists is a “living charter.” VAC has ignored the remaining 396 recommendations from two of its own advisory groups and the House Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Consultation, as Treasury Board tells all federal departments, “entails a two-way exchange in which stakeholders are given an opportunity to provide input and affect the outcome of a regulatory proposal.” This has not occurred. Consultation is the “cornerstone” of the regulatory process. Veterans Affairs has widely danced around, shirked, misled Parliament, veterans and Canadians, and just blatantly ignored consultation.

For a department mandated by law to provide a service, why would Veterans Affairs senior managers risk career oblivion in ignoring Cabinet and Treasury Board directives?

It boils down to this: instead of Veterans Affairs doing everything possible to change how it operates to alleviate the suffering of veterans and their families, the department does everything possible to maintain the status quo. It is as if all senior managers in VAC are so determined to believe in their own infallibility that they cannot imagine that VAC is actually failing in its mandate.

By the way, it is the customers with the greatest needs who determine whether VAC is fulfilling its mandate, not management. That is another thing we can count on from Veterans Affairs: that the customer they claim to serve is almost always wrong.

Sean Bruyea is an advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and a retired intelligence officer who served in the Persian Gulf War. Mr. Bruyea has settled his lawsuit with the federal government.