This government has a chance to fix a small part of this and receive the praise of approximately 5,000 totally disabled and incapacitated veterans as well as thousands to follow. Incrementalism is demeaning for veterans who never hesitated to fulfill their obligation to Canada at a moment’s notice while in uniform.
The 95 per cent of VAC bureaucrats who never served in the military don’t get it. Former rank is everything, especially when it determines one’s professional and financial worth in a frustrating world of disability. All that holds many disabled veterans together is pride in one’s rank. This is a demotion in a veterans’ purpose-giving status. One would think that Veterans Affairs deputy minister and former top general Walt Natynczyk would get this, writes Sean Bruyea.
The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
By SEAN BRUYEA
Cautious optimism has infected veterans and Canadians alike hoping that injured veterans’ lives will be made better under the current Liberal government. Even with the usual bureaucratic shenanigans underway, the budget announcements, if done right, justify limited hope.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr contains 15 priorities, each containing one or more promises. Of these, some are conceptual feel-good, but hard-to-measure pledges such as “Deliver a higher standard of service and care, and ensure that a ‘one veteran, one standard’ approach is upheld.” Like most rhetoric around veterans, “one service, one standard” is not clearly defined and therefore has differing meanings depending on the audience.
Three priorities promise increased staff, reopening nine much-needed offices and “two new centres of excellence of veterans’ care.” Veterans Affairs attributing “excellence” to its level of care has been more about baseless self-promotion than substance.
Along with the reopened offices, the priorities that have been most anticipated and which will measurably improve injured veterans’ lives are those enhancements to financial programs for the injured.
However, the 2016 budget included only five of the 10 mandate promises which will affect the economic status of injured veterans. The most controversial of these commits to increase the lump sum paid for pain and suffering, bringing the maximum payable from the current $310,000 to $360,000 in 2017. This amount is more reflective of what Canadian courts pay for pain and suffering. It may look like a significant amount but we must remember that as of March 31 last year, only 271 CF veterans have received the maximum amount out of 50,000 or so recipients. The average award has been $40,000 over the last 10 years.
The budget makes no mention of similarly increasing the death benefit for the 440 survivors who are estimated to have received the award by the end of March this year. It is essential that increases recognize compensation for their loss.
There is also no mention of improving the well-being of those veterans, survivors, and orphans on the monthly disability pension, the much-lauded predecessor to the lump sum. Disability pensions have lagged behind both military and average Canadian salaries for decades. In 1952, a married veteran with three children receiving the maximum pension was paid $2,544 annually, higher than a married sergeant in the CF who received just over $19,00 annually. Considering this was a tax-free pension, it equated to more than the average Canadian salary of $2,815 or even a married lieutenant’s salary of $3,000 annually.
Today, the disability pension is shamefully pegged to the lowest unskilled labour category in the federal public service. A married veteran with two children receiving the maximum is paid $48,000 annually compared to a current sergeant’s salary of $65,000 and a median Canadian family income of $76,000 in 2013.
There are a lot of numbers here. Their complexity along with understanding the programs themselves has long allowed government to sidestep real debate on the issues. This is particularly true when dealing with the overlapping and confusing additional allowances received by veterans. For example, the mandate letter promised to expand access to what is known as the “permanent impairment allowance.” The budget merely promises to change the name of the allowance to “career impact allowance.” There is no pledge to expand access nor is there any indication the monthly $1,089 supplement will be included in the new allowance.
Adding to the inequity and confusion, veterans under the monthly pension scheme have been shut out completely from receiving this much-needed monthly supplement. These veterans have very limited access to an “exceptional incapacity allowance” and an “attendance allowance” but none of these compensate for loss of career.
The way to make this right is to have the three allowances, including the career impact allowance with a supplement, available and accessible to all injured veterans according to their needs and losses. This is not uncharted territory: many provincial workers’ compensation schemes provide similar benefits. Don’t wounded veterans deserve at least this minimum standard?
The final big ticket item is raising the amount paid for loss of income. This commitment raises the most questions and contains numerous pitfalls that could humiliate and/or alienate as many veterans as it helps.
Currently, CF members medically released from the Forces or those with a military injury can receive rehabilitation training. During the training period, which typically lasts two years, CF veterans can receive up to 75 per cent of their military salary at time of release minus all other income. Furthermore, those veterans who are so incapacitated as to be unemployable can receive the 75 per cent up until age 65.
The 2016 budget promises to raise this earnings loss benefit to 90 per cent. Annual increases were pegged to inflation to a maximum of two per cent. The cap will be removed. Canada recorded inflation higher than two per cent in eight of the last 15 years so this commitment raises hopes that can be quickly dashed.
Will the increases to CPI be applied to retroactive calculations? Those released from the military prior to 1992 have had their earnings loss dramatically eroded by the two per cent cap. In each of the years between 1976 and 1991, inflation ranged from a minimum of 3.9 per cent to a maximum of 12.5 per cent. It would be heartless to leave this cap in place for retroactive calculations. Seeing how the Bank of Canada has an inflation target rate of two per cent, removing the cap only prospectively would make this promise mostly meaningless.
As for the 90 per cent, this was a figure concocted by the Ombudsman’s office to seek a compromise with parsimonious bureaucrats. Initially the ombudsman, in a round of welcome consultations, tried to push an 85 per cent figure but resistance from stakeholders was justifiably fierce. Why? In 2009, a Veterans Affairs appointed advisory group was permitted to release its report, “The Living Charter in Action.” The banner recommendation for financial security in the groups’ report was to raise the earnings loss to 100 per cent of military salary. The rationale was sound. Maintaining income levels would maximize rehabilitation success while providing much dignity to those unable to work.
However, the 100 per cent income was just one part of a two-part assessment for financial security, which the group’s report insisted should be implemented together. For those who cannot be fully employed, these disabled veterans should receive “a fair, equitable income consistent with a normal military career.” This is not rocket science. Courts calculate probable earnings when making income loss awards and workers compensation schemes also include similar criteria to recognize lost career income.
There is no mention of using probable earnings in either the mandate letter or the 2016 budget.
What is mentioned is lowering the minimum payable from the equivalent of corporal to a senior private’s salary. This is callous at the very least. Sure, tightfisted bureaucrats can claim a financial victory by limiting payouts. Class A and B reservists as well as a large proportion of the most disabled are of lower rank and pegged to this minimum.
However, the 95 per cent of VAC bureaucrats who never served in the military don’t get it. Former rank is everything, especially when it determines one’s professional and financial worth in a frustrating world of disability. All that holds many disabled veterans together is pride in one’s rank. This is a demotion in a veterans’ purpose-giving status. One would think that Veterans Affairs deputy minister and former top general Walt Natynczyk would get this.
Will the Canadian Forces’ income loss insurance program upon which VAC’s earnings loss is based follow suit? Failure to do so would be mean-spirited.
All CF veterans, not just the disabled, have been marginalized and the objects of discrimination and neglect for far too long. This government has a chance to fix a small part of this and receive the praise of approximately 5,000 totally disabled and incapacitated veterans as well as thousands to follow. Incrementalism is demeaning for veterans who never hesitated to fulfill their obligation to Canada at a moment’s notice while in uniform. Let us justify their hope with real change.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.
http://www.hilltimes.com/2016/04/04/precarious-optimism-for-veterans/55578 (May require subscription)