OTTAWA—Disabled veterans and their families have been told to wait yet again while the House Committee on Veterans Affairs holds further hearings on the New Veterans Charter. Although the government has been inundated with unanimous calls to act, it’s dilly-dallying, distracting and distorting instead.
Government-appointed advisory groups since 2006 have supplied more than 300 recommendations for change to the department and the New Veterans Charter. I provided the committee another 55. The government has chosen to play far too much politics with the recommendations or has ignored the elephants in the room.
One recommendation looks to increase the level of the Earnings Loss Benefit, which currently provides 75 per cent of an injured member’s salary at time of military release. The languishing of this recommendation serves as a sad example of how most substantive recommendations are being thrown into the trash bin.
In response to this recommendation, elected officials and senior bureaucrats have been quick to march out one scenario from a 2013 report. Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino testified: “In fact, according to the Veterans Ombudsman, a 24-year corporal who is medically released from the military will now receive upwards of $2-million in total financial benefits because of improvements our government has made.”
Two million dollars sounds impressive, until it’s broken down. This amount includes a lump sum of $240,000 for pain and suffering as well as special allowances to compensate for the impairments of disabilities as well as $343,443 in taxes.
The actual take home income loss benefit is $950,937. Spread that out over 41 years when the benefit ceases at age 65, the 24-year-old corporal takes home $23,193 annually in actual income loss. The statistics Canada low-income cut-off in 2011 was just over $30,000. Even if the VAC income supplement of $12,000 annually is added, the actual income related to income loss is just over the low-income cut-off defined “as the minimum salary by which a family can maintain a basic standard of living.”
Why would any government be proud of providing the “minimum…to maintain a basic standard of living” to those who sacrificed their careers, health and often the well-being of their families for the benefit of Canadians?
This is not just morally repugnant; it is considerably less than that provided by most civilian workers’ compensation plans. A 2013 study by the Institute of Work and Health noted that, “for every category of physical impairment, the average after-tax earnings replacement rate was at least 90 per cent.” For those civilian workers with greater impairment, the average “after-tax earnings replacement” was 126 per cent. This is because workers’ compensation schemes must not only take into account lost income, but also lost potential of expected average career progression. And all benefits increase fully with inflation. The VAC’s earnings loss caps increases at a maximum of two per cent per year whereas the MPs’ disability plan increases at three per cent.
The federal government treats our most disabled veterans as if they are frozen in human potential on the day of their military release. How can Ottawa’s miserly approach to income replacement not be a major contributor to the often abysmal self-esteem of disabled veterans not to mention dramatically worsen the financial stresses of the family?
As far back as 2006, the VAC Special Needs Advisory Group comprised of some of the more seriously disabled veterans got this. They recommended “annual increases to the ELB based upon current rates of pay and annual CF pay rate increases.” The government did nothing.
This recommendation would be expanded upon in the 2009 report from the VAC New Veterans Charter Advisory Group, which also recommended to put the earnings loss at 100 per cent of military salary following expected career path earnings. The government did nothing.
Parliament agreed with the advisory groups. The same committee holding hearings on the issue today, in 2010 recommended “the earnings loss benefit become a non-taxable benefit representing the equivalent of 100 per cent of a veteran’s net income at the time of release, where that release is the consequence of a service-related injury.” The committee also recommended that the earnings loss be adjusted annually with inflation.
The bureaucracy snubbed its nose at Parliament and did nothing.
Since1996, before well-justified pay increases in the Canadian Forces, military pay is now almost 80 per cent higher for any given rank whereas the consumer price index has increased only 38 per cent. However, there have been eight years where inflation was greater than two per cent resulting in the earnings loss benefit limited to an effective increase of 30 per cent.
During a February 2012 Veterans Affairs Canada stakeholder committee meeting, the VAC bureaucracy was asked to politely leave the room. Veterans groups hammered out unanimous endorsement of the advisory group reports specifically pointing to the need to assist the most seriously disabled veterans with income assistance. The government did nothing.
A few months later, the Royal Canadian Legion admirably brought together representatives from a dozen veteran organizations known as the Veterans Consultation Group. The group called the government’s bluff and put forward three recommendations “requiring rapid resolution by the government.” The first of the three states “the Earnings Loss Benefit (ELB) must be improved to provide 100 per cent of pre-release income, continue for life and include increases for projected career earnings for a Canadian Armed Forces member.” The group would follow up with three more letters repeating the same recommendations. The government did nothing.
In 2013, the Veterans Ombudsman Office put forward a similar recommendation, but, in the spirit of compromise, pegged the earnings loss benefit at 90 per cent instead of the current 75 per cent. The government did nothing at first and then called for another review by a Parliamentary committee.
True to a history of words and no action, Fantino requested of the committee that, “you should focus the review on how the new Veterans Charter serves the most seriously injured, how our government supports Canadian veterans’ families, and how Veterans Affairs delivers the programs that have been put in place.”
How long do seriously injured veterans and their families have to wait for government to act? Brian Forbes of the National Council of Veteran Associations proposed that the Veterans Consultation Group encourage the minister to recognize its “time for a heroic moment.” The veterans ombudsman would later use these same words.
Veterans have been more than heroic in sacrificing for Canada. Why is the government acting cowardly in repaying the “debt” owed to our men and women in uniform and their families?
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.
The Hill Times