The importance of keeping a laser-like focus on Veterans’ outcomes

Ottawa, ON – March 22, 2016

This text was authored by Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman, and originally published in The Hill Times on Monday, March 21, 2016.d

Since Canada passed the Pension Act in 1919 – its first major legislation to support Veterans – every 20 years or so a review of Veterans’ benefits is conducted because Veterans’ needs change. The Pension Act has been amended many times over its almost century of existence. The Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act, commonly known as the New Veterans Charter (NVC), came into being in 2006 because the Pension Act was not meeting the needs of younger Veterans and not supporting the principles of modern disability management. The reality is both pieces of legislation produce undesirable outcomes resulting in inadequate support for Veterans and their families.

There are a variety of reasons for this inadequacy. Years of delivering support in the same way can create almost insurmountable barriers to cultural change for service providers when change is required. These reasons have a common factor: the outcomes for Veterans have never been clearly defined.

Although there are published outcomes for Veterans’ programs, they do not necessarily translate into well-defined outcomes for Veterans. Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC)’s first strategic outcome in its 2016-17 Report on Plans and Priorities is the following: Financial, physical, and mental well-being of eligible Veterans. Digging deeper into the document, we find that from a financial perspective, VAC’s financial program will ensure that recipients have income that is “adequate to meeting their basic needs”.

So what does that mean to a Veteran? How much support is VAC going to provide to Veterans to meet their basic needs? What benchmark is being used to determine adequacy? How will success be measured? The performance measure currently being used to measure success in VAC’s latest Report on Plans and Priorities is the percentage of eligible Veterans whose family income is above the Low Income Measure (LIM), representing 50 percent of median household income adjusted for family size. Is this the financial outcome we want for our citizens who sacrifice themselves in defence of Canada? Is this what Veterans deserve?

Meeting Veterans’ basic needs leaves much open to interpretation with no defined end state. How can we adequately support ill and injured Veterans when the outcome we are trying to achieve is unclear? How can we know we have achieved success, if we cannot measure it? However, what if the outcome for a disabled Veteran who can no longer work is that he or she would receive financial support at a level that duplicates what they could have received had they been able to complete a full military career of 35 years? It would now be clear to the Veteran what financial support he or she should be receiving. Likewise, it would be clear to VAC what they should be providing. That outcome would be clearly defined and measureable. Is that not what we should be doing?

Using the words “basic needs” also leads down a path that takes a minimalist approach to providing Veterans’ benefits. So, why take that approach? This is where the socio-economic norms of bygone eras still influence the way we support Veterans today. Research shows that three universal pension principles were incorporated into early Veterans’ pension legislation: gratitude, payment of debt and subsistence.

The “gratitude” principle was typically addressed through the award of ribbons and medals. The “payment of debt” principle considered that a contract exists between the soldier and his country, resulting in a debt payable by the state to the soldier for his disability in service to the country, or to the widow and children for the soldier’s death. Finally, the “subsistence” principle considered that no Veteran should become a public charge. This was at a time when state-funded social assistance was almost non-existent. Under this principle, a pension was provided for the essentials of life, or subsistence living, on an income- tested basis with pension amounts based on average earnings in the general labour market. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines subsistence as the income required to provide a minimal level of existence. Is this the financial outcome we want for our citizens who sacrificed themselves in defence of Canada?

Along with sufficiency, there is also a problem of accessibility. Why are some Veterans and their families still struggling to access benefits? Simply put, because benefits are too complex, not only for Veterans but also for VAC staff. After decades of layering legislative amendments, policies and regulations one on top of the other, with no regard for how such overlapping would affect Veterans, a system has been created that is difficult to administer. As a result, decisions take too long, reasons for decisions are not well understood by Veterans, there are significant misconceptions about what benefits are available and to whom, as well as inconsistent adjudication decisions for the same injuries and/or illnesses.

Everyone involved in Veterans’ issues recognizes these problems, and yet they remain. They need to be solved as quickly as possible because every day they are not; they cause frustration to ill and injured Veterans and their families. To right this situation and give Veterans the level of service they deserve, it is time to start focusing on service delivery outcomes for Veterans. If we do not know what is to be achieved from a Veteran’s perspective, then how can we ensure we adequately support all Veterans?

In recent weeks, I spoke to both the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs about the importance of keeping a laser-like focus on outcomes. Determining the outcome we are trying to achieve should be the starting point rather than trying to justify the outcome after implementing a benefit. If we use this approach, we will find the root causes of problems and be better able to solve them.

When I look at outcomes for Veterans these are the types of questions that need to be asked:

  • Why do Veterans have to apply for benefits when they release if the Government already has all the information necessary to determine eligibility for benefits? Could we not create a one-stop shop environment where a Veteran could easily find all the information necessary, be guided through the process and offered proactive service? VAC could conduct a file review and adjudicate any and all benefits for which the Veteran would be entitled.
  • Why is the burden on the Veteran to show eligibility? If the burden was on the Government to show ineligibility, would it not change the overall effect on Veterans and make it easier for the average Veteran to access support? Would this not stop forcing Veterans to re-tell their stories time and time again, which often re-traumatizes those suffering from psychological injuries?
  • Could we not use the evidence that certain military occupations incur certain injuries to presume that when a Veteran applies for benefits, those injuries are service-related?

The way we do business today is not working as well as it should. If it were, we would not have as many frustrated ill and injured Veterans as we do. So, let’s go beyond today’s ideas and shape tomorrow by clearly defining Veterans’ outcomes – the end results that we want to achieve – and figure out the steps needed to attain optimal results for Veterans and their families. It is time that benefits and service delivery are simplified and meet Veterans’ needs. Veterans and their families deserve no less.

Guy Parent
Veterans Ombudsman