Opening Remarks: Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA)


November 2, 2017

Opening Remarks by Gary Walbourne. 

Thank you Mr. Chair and good morning to all.

I appreciate the invitation to appear before you today to discuss issues surrounding transition from military to civilian life.

I am joined by my Director General of Operations, Ms. Robyn Hynes.

It is my understanding that you are currently studying programming and best practices from like-minded countries around the world. I believe it is important to keep up with the latest trends and innovative practices from these countries in order to best inform what we do here are at home. 

Ombudsmanry is no different. Our Office is part of the International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces, whose aim is to establish best practice and lessons learned related to the mandate, powers and functioning of these institutions. There is a lot to be learned from all participants of the conference, as there is a lot to be learned from the witnesses you have and will hear over the course of your study. However, I also believe that there are made-in-Canada solutions to some of the issues facing current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), whether in uniform or transitioning to civilian life. I would like to provide you with some examples now.

Since my appointment to the position in 2014, our office has published eleven evidence-based reports that are the direct result of systemic investigations we have undertaken. In addition, I provided a comprehensive document to the Minister of National Defence in response to his call for submissions from across the country to inform the new Defence Policy that is now known as STRONG, SECURE, ENGAGED. Progress on implementing the evidence-based recommendations contained in my reports has been lackluster.  For our constituents we are now publishing report cards on departmental progress on our website and through our various social media channels. We will continue to publish and update these report cards on a regular basis. As an office that is not entrenched in legislation and does not report to Parliament, I have few levers that I can pull in order to hold the department to account. Therefore, publishing the departmental progress is extremely important as a measurement tool moving forward.

I am pleased to say that some of my recommendations have been accepted and have appeared in the department’s defence policy review. Last year I published a report recommending a new service delivery model for medically releasing Canadian Armed Forces members, in which I made three recommendations:

  1. That the CAF retain ill or injured members until all benefits and services from all sources — Canadian Armed Forces, Veterans Affairs Canada and the Service Income Security Insurance Plan, or SISIP —are put in place.
  2. Establish a transition concierge service to act as a single point of contact for members and their families.
  3. Develop a secure web portal single point of entry for all matters related to the transition from CAF to civilian life.

I was pleased that the first chapter of STRONG, SECURE, ENGAGED was dedicated to the well-being of Canadian Armed Forces members and their families. My recommendation to retain ill and injured members until all benefits/services are in place appears to have been accepted. Yet, my constituency, and my office have yet to see a policy suite to support the departmental claims that “holding the member” is already being done across the country. And sadly, my office is still getting calls from members being released before these benefits and services are in place. However, in a recent conversation with Commander Military Personnel Command I have been advised this is currently being worked on with an eye to completion by years end.  This is good news.

I am pleased to report that a concierge service is being developed, and I also anxiously await the end product.

Finally, in the interest of expediency, my office, working in conjunction with the CAF, is building the Benefits Browser that will help Canadian Armed Forces members understand what benefits and services they could be eligible for through the transition process.

Ladies and gentlemen, the terms “CLOSING THE SEAM” and “SEAMLESS TRANSITION” are buzzwords not unique to this government. These terms have been used for decades. We have been trying to move the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) closer together for years.  But I believe that the system that was built to support current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces cannot be brought any closer together without taking a hard look in the mirror, and asking why we do things the way we do. We have to get to the core issues. Hiring more people and opening more offices to do more of the same will not get current and former members any closer to that which they are entitled. Which is a well-managed and timely transition process.

Based on the evidence it has, the Canadian Armed Forces decides whether a member can continue serving or should be released. It therefore raises the question: If the Forces has enough evidence to end a member's career, why is that not sufficient to determine eligibility for benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada?

Why are there two government entities that independently determine whether an illness or injury is attributable to military service baffles me. The Canadian Armed Forces knows when, where and how the member was injured or became ill. This is attribution to service.

On September 26th, The Globe and Mail published my Opinion Editorial where I call for simple changes to the current system. In the Op-Ed, I reiterated the recommendation I made in a report published last year, calling for a system in which the Canadian Armed Forces simply checks a box indicating that a member's illness or injury can be reasonably attributed to their service. Once that box is checked, Veterans Affairs should immediately accept that decision and determine what benefits and services the member is entitled to, NOT whether the member is entitled to them. This simple change would cut wait times for Veterans Affairs benefits drastically. It would also provide clarity for releasing members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families in a period of change and uncertainty.

I have not received a wholesome response to this member-centric recommendation. Despite many attempted explanations as to why neither department has the policy authority to implement such a recommendation, I believe that it comes down to leadership, and the steadfast devotion to the status quo.

Instead, the stream of interdepartmental working groups devoted to transition is forever growing. The bureaucracy is throwing darts at concentric circles that surround the core issues, instead of aiming for the bullseye. All the while, more current and former members of Canadian Armed Forces, and their families are waiting. They are the greatest victims of bureaucracy.

Every time a new program or practice is put in place, the government must take into account how it may brush up against the existing system to avoid duplication or unnecessary red tape. For a recent and troubling example, look no further than the Veterans Hiring Act. The ability for Veterans Affairs Canada to meet their 16-week service standard for Priority Hiring sits at a dismal 26% in this fiscal year.  It is in my opinion that this is unacceptable, and it seems that no one is asking the tough questions, why. More accountability needs to be demanded from senior leadership.

I was deeply troubled by recommendation 15 on page 63 of this committee’s December 2016 Report on Improving Service Delivery to Canadian Veterans where you call for changes to the Service Income Security Insurance Plan also known as SISIP. I caution this committee, and those considering fundamental changes to SISIP that this is a program that works, and works very well. Let me give you some examples.

With SISIP, each Member is assigned a Case Manager and Vocational Rehabilitation Counsellor who ARE accessible by phone, email, fax, or in person when geographically feasible depending on how the Member wants to communicate.  This is not the case with all service providers.

Ninety-one percent of members apply for this benefit PRIOR to their release and 96% of those eligible Members receive notice of their approval BEFORE their release date. Payment of benefits are timely. Eighty-eight percent of the time, payment is made within 5 days of Manulife receiving all the information required to process a claim.

This program works for the members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who pay into the insurance plan. Why make substantial changes?

In my line of business, one way to measure program success is by how few complaints we receive. When it comes to SISIP we don’t receive many engagements and the majority are for information or on education of the program.

In order to best support all our transitioning members we must determine what the desired outcomes of our programs benefits and services are to be. If the goal is to have a happy, healthy, self-actualized, employed, and well-integrated former member in society, then we should build for that by removing already identified and studied impediments that a releasing member faces on his or her road to success. If machinery of government changes are needed to knock down those barriers, well….there is a mechanism for that. And, if legislative or regulatory changes are needed, there are mechanisms for that also.

Everything is within the realm of possible should the government choose to act on many of the recommendations I have made. However, my fear is that those who with the loudest voice and who believe change is impossible are being listened to at the end of the day.

Thank you, and I stand ready to answer any questions you may have.

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