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October 2011 VAC Meeting with Stakeholders

Rifleman62

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http://www.veteranvoice.info/archive/periodicals/Periodical_11Nov_2.htm

Veteran's Voice is an informative website.

The following is his take of the October meetings with VAC.

Keep On Advocating


Last week, representatives of VeteranVoice and other Veterans organisations participated in two meetings in Ottawa.  The first was held on 24 October and was organised by VAC.  The minister, the Honourable Steven Blaney, opened the meeting and then spent the day meeting with the representatives, while the deputy minister, Suzanne Tining, chaired the eight hour main session.

The second meeting was organised by the Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) and was held on 29 October in the national headquarters of the RCL.  This was a shorter meeting, scheduled for five hours and covered related topics.  Both meetings were very interesting.  Both demonstrated that there is many similarities among the groups in terms of concerns and a determination to improve the provisions of services to the Veterans Community.  There may be differences in terminology and priorities, but there is unity of purpose.  We need to keep advocating on behalf of the Veterans Community.

The first meeting was preceded by an informal gathering scheduled by Don Leonardo,of Veterans of Canada.  He solicited support for a public inquiry similar to the Woods Committee of the mid-1960's.  The panel considered 148 recommendations and most were implemented within two years of the final report from Judge Mervyn Woods.    This proposal was also discussed in an article written by Sean Bruyea, which is available on the website.  VeteranVoice supports a public inquiry, and the staff believes such an investigation is long over due, particularly in the wake of the government's slow adoption of changes to the NVC, and the lack of implementation of solutions for systemic problems dating back to the Woods Committee (and earlier).  There is support for a formal review, although the format has yet to be discussed and blessed by Veterans organisations.  The topic will be covered in future articles, so be on the look-out for updates.

The impromptu meeting was followed by a general round of hellos as the participants greeted each other. We then moved to the meeting room to begin a very long and emotional session of frank discussions.  The minister welcomed us to the first session of the VAC Stakeholders Committee meeting.  Of note, there was a preliminary meeting on 14 June to discuss the composition and activities of this committee.  VAC provided everyone with a draft agenda, which outlined what the senior VAC officials wanted to discuss.  The format was quickly challenged by Don Leonardo and me.  We stated that the representatives were not consulted about the agenda and we had many items that we wanted to discuss during this meeting.  Basically, Don and I indicated that we were not going to follow the VAC plan.

I would like to believe two things happened as a result of our unscripted comments.  First, it surprised the VAC officials, who may have expected a much more congenial meeting with the officials talking to us as opposed to talking with us.  Second, it encouraged others to participate in every discussion throughout the day.  The latter clearly indicated that many groups shared similar concerns about the major issues affecting the Veterans Community.  It was reassuring that there was so much support for talking about these issues in spite of the detailed agenda prepared by VAC. 

All of the participants respected each other so there were no rude or impolite words exchanged.  The wealth of knowledge and experience of the group was clearly demonstrated as everyone could support their comments with facts and figures.  This may have surprised the VAC officials because we could provide details of the legislation, policy, programs and benefits affecting Veterans.  Nor was discussion limited to just a few speakers.  Everyone who contributed was able to convey their passion for advocating on behalf of Veterans.

The words of the representatives were supported by the former chairs of three VAC committees: the Gerontological, SNAG and NVCAG.  All three have contributed detailed reports full of recommendations to improve the quality of VAC, but unfortunately, VAC has either ignored these reports or been slow to implement the recommendations.  This sadly has also been the fate of many recommendations particularly since the introduction of the NVC in 2006.

All of this information supports the importance of doing a in-depth study of VAC and related government agencies which have not provided satisfactory service to Veterans and are slow to implement changes aimed at improving how Canada honours its Veterans and their families.  Canadians need to know about the inadequate support and what will be done to fix the systemic problems.

The discussions were a mix of criticisms and possible solutions.  One of the most significant was the call for immediate adoption of the almost 500 recommendations for the NVC.  The VAC officials were repeatedly challenged and questioned about their activities.  It was very apparent that they were not prepared for the type of discussions which took place.  Rather than being a series of presentations, it was more a series of open discussions with the representatives doing a lot of the talking.  The VAC officials were not able to explain why problems persisted, but it was obvious that the administration was convoluted and decision-making is often limited to only a few people.  For example, the deputy minister stated that Information Technology (IT) is very dated, she said “dark, dark ages”.  The VAC website has over 180,000 pages and the information is either obsolete or incorrect.  There is a reliance on working with paper (hard copy) instead of digital files.  Mary Chaput, the ADM, spoke about a five year plan to modernise records, which was not favourably received by many representatives.  Ms Chaput left the meeting after being “grilled” during her presentation. Stakeholders were not happy and want to see modernisation within one year as in five years who knows how far technology will have changed.  The VAC ADM’s said they would do their best.  At the request of Keith Hillier (ADM Service Delivery),  VVi will have a poll question for the three most important additions Veterans would like to see on their My VAC Account, including a step-by-step application for  access My VAC account.

Of note, VAC uses a policy manual of 1500 pages and many decisions are “exceptional”, which means that only senior officials are involved.  One obvious consequence is that there are long delays in making decisions that should be achieved in days rather than months.  The pace of activity is glacial and this is very unsatisfactory because Veterans, particularly elderly and seriously disabled, do not have the luxury of waiting for results.

Problems that were systemic before the NVC persist and the NVC has just compounded a poorly managed system.

Ms Tining did mention that VAC is well aware of its shortcomings, especially after the review conducted by Keith Coulter, which was summarised in a report to the federal cabinet in 2010.  VAC has a long way to go to live up to its aspirations to be a provider of high quality services.  She also stated that VAC is going to start using the KISS method for their website to make it easier for vets to understand decisions and applications.

VAC was repeatedly questioned to explain information about its monies.  For example, the announcement of a budget reduction of $226 million was discussed and many asked for what will be affected by it as well as a 5% or 10% reduction in federal departments, and up to 500 staff cuts (VAC employs about 4500 people).  The response was that the $226 million is a reduction in services for war service or traditional Veterans based on they’re declining numbers, and thus does not affect younger or post-war Veterans.  There will be $189 million for NVC programs.  Despite this topic being discussed several times, it was still difficult to follow the logic.  I was reminded of the shell game or three card Monte.  Money has been added and subtracted to the VAC budget resulting in a very confused situation.  One would need to be an accountant to fully understand how the government uses its revenues, and even an accountant might be bewildered!  .

The Veterans Ombudsman has already complained that a reduction of $226 million will adversely affect VAC's services.  He has questioned the calculations made by VAC that indicated that the money could be cut.  Just another reason for a public review of the department.  Canada is planning cuts while our allies are freezing budgets or increasing them.  This is a very negative trend for VAC.  It reinforces the impression that Canada is unwilling to support its Veterans.

There was support for a motion that VAC increase its budget particularly in light of the many examples of limited financial support for Veterans and the need for new IT capabilities within the year.  There were many examples of VAC “low balling” claims of medical conditions and refusing benefits to every type of Veteran (traditional and modern).  This is similar to the initiatives in other countries, which are also expecting significant government financial reductions.  Basically, there is a move to improve support for Veterans even though governments are cutting their expenses.  VAC should be spending more not less!!!!

There was a lot of information and it is a challenge to recall much of it.  This is one reason that I supported a motion that future meetings be recorded.  The committee had agreed not to record these sessions on 14 June because it was believed that recordings would discourage participation.  I believe that it is essential to provide an unedited video recording so that the Veterans Community can see and hear its representatives at work.  The organisations participating do not truly represent the community and everyone should be able to access the information.  There was continued resistance to the motion, but I shall continue to push for full disclosure.  After eight hours, it was hard to remember many important details.  This is in keeping with government's wish to be transparent and accountable.  VAC, VeteranVoice and other organisations could post the video recordings on websites.  Yes, these would be long but very informative.  If you cannot be there then you can still be involved.

Reviewing the meetings will be useful in preparing for future meetings as well as following up on many topics.  It was suggested by several people, including Ron Cundell, that VAC provide a progress report in the next 2-3 months in which it discusses what action has been taken to address issues discussed in the meeting.  The report would be used to develop the agenda of future meetings.  A report is essential to prove that VAC is cooperating with the Veterans Community.  This committee can not become another waste of time and resources like the groups mentioned above (NVCAG and SNAG).

The plan is that the stakeholders will meet at least twice a year.  I proposed that a future meeting be held in Charlottetown so that the committee can observe the “heart” of VAC (almost one-third of all VAC employees work in the headquarters, can you say heavily centralised).  Also for the next meeting Col Gerry Blais, CO JPSU and Director Casualty Support Management, will present a brief from a “no rank” meeting with soldiers as to what they like and do not like about the NVC.  If stakeholders are fighting to improve Veterans' benefits we need some direction from serving members of the CF and RCMP so they are not fighting the system when they retire.

VVi’s one on one meeting with Minister Blaney gave us the chance to explain to the Minister that VVi is a media portal to the veteran community.  He will also consider VVi’s advice about releasing the OVO report on VRAB decisions and Federal Court rulings to release it the day he gets it and not use his 60 day grace period.  Releasing this information immediately would show that the Minister has respect for the Veterans  Community.

Following the formal end of the meeting, some of us gathered to express our views on what had happened.  There had been a significant shift in the attitude of the VAC officials.  At the start they may have been condescending (talking at us rather than with us), but they were more willing to admit that they have many faults at the end.  As we know admitting to a problem is one of the first steps to finding a solution.  Now it will be important to keep observing VAC to ensure solutions are implemented, sooner rather than later.

The Veterans Ombudsman was in attendance for the start of the meeting, and then he left to attend his staff meeting.  His absence was noted.  He did say that he had not planned to participate because it was an originally an advisory committee (the name changed following the meeting on 14 June).  He did attend all of the RCL meeting on 29 October.  I asked him whether he would attend future stakeholder meetings.  At first he was reluctant suggesting that he was uncomfortable.  I responded that he needs to have a presence because he is one of the most important representatives of the Veterans Community and we need to have good representation by “stakeholders”.  He said there will be an OVO presence in the future.

I am guardedly optimistic that the meeting was useful.  Now it is the duty of VAC to schedule future meetings and stay involved with its stakeholders.  VAC and the Veterans Community have important roles to play in order to ensure that Canada continues to honour its social covenant or contract with its Veterans and their families.

Please read some of the other information about this meeting and other events.  In particular, I encourage everyone to nominate new representatives.  It is important to have a good cross-section of representatives including the CF, RCMP, Veterans Community, health care professionals, academic advisers and government officials (Treasury Board, VAC employees and senior staff, etc.) 

 

Rifleman62

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Part Two

The second meeting provided another opportunity to discuss important issues.  Again it was clearly demonstrated that Veterans are interested in the same things.  We may disagree on the details but not with the importance of continued advocacy. 

I have submitted a copy of the agenda, and will now provide a summary of the main discussion.

The first presentation was given by Bill Richard, who has been involved through Queen's University in discussions and studies of medical conditions affecting Canadian Veterans. He is a member of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR). He provide information about the 2010  Military and Veterans Health Review Forum involving 150 attendees.  The second conference will be held in Kingston 14-16 November and there will be about 450 participants and involve more than 25 institutions and organisations.  Sean Bruyea will be giving two lectures and contributing a visual display.  (http://cimvhr.ca/)

Bill referred to a study entitled Heading Home: A New Battlefield.  This covers many of the recent activities of Veterans particularly those wounded physically and mentally in a wide range of operations.  The heavy pace and scope of operations has resulted in a multitude of health concerns.  For example, more Canadians served in Afghanistan than Korea and a higher per centage survived serious injuries.  There has been an increase in physical, mental and social problems in the Veterans Community.  While the national experience in Korea influenced the development in Canadian health care, a similar process has not evolved in recent years.  The Veterans Community faces more complex problems than Korean era Veterans.

There needs to be a better system in providing a cradle to grave care system involving DND and VAC.  Since the Korea War, health care has been shifted more to the provincial systems as VAC downsizes its health care services.  VAC has a budget of $300,000 for medical research which is paltry compared to other countries (USA spends $500 million and Australia spent $10 million).  International collaboration is required as well as greater national interest (such as the forum in Kingston). 

One of his examples was the fact that female spouses in military families experience 25% greater probability of breast cancer than Canadian women.  This was attributed to frequent moves and lower than average use of health care services.  Families need to be more pro-active in monitoring their health care.

There are three pillars of CIMVHR: research; information exchanges with health care providers; and, education.  There has to be more focus on improving health care in the Veterans Community.

It has been recommended that $30 million be spent on research over the next five years (another reason to increase the budget of VAC).  The defence industry in Canada is being encouraged to invest in research as well.

There will be an “Afghan Syndrome” similar to that rcognised by other countries after the Gulf War 1990-91.  Therefore there is a need for dedicated research and health care for future Veterans, who need long term support.

The CIMVHR will be publishing a book including the lectures and other information presented at the 2010 event.

There were six items for discussion:

re-dedication of the National War Memorial;

summary of a paper on Supporting Canadian Veterans with Disabilities

funeral and burial benefits;

transition to civilian life;

public inquiry on Veterans Issues; and

renaming the Naval Officers Association of Canada.

The war memorial has been the subject of media attention in which the RCL was accused of opposing the addition of Afghanistan to the monument in Ottawa (one of two national memorials with the other located in Newfoundland).The news has caused dissension among Veterans groups, and it is another example of why regular communications are essential to keep the Veterans Community knowledgeable about issues such as those discussed above and below.  The RCL does not oppose additions to the memorials, but prefers that there be recognition given to many activities in which Veterans have been involved and will be involved in the future.  Thus instead of a specific addition for Afghanistan, it is proposed that the the phrase “in service of Canada” be added.  This will redress the many omissions of the past and will apply equally to the future.  Canada should honour all of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.  There have been over 1600 fatalities in national and international operations.  The list includes NORAD, NATO, UN and humanitarian operations.  For example, the fire on the HMCS Kootenay resulted in nine killed and many seriously wounded.  A tenth death can be attributed likely because of PTSD (suicide).  This was the most casualties in a non-wartime naval activity.

The Queen's University study covered many of the issues studied by NVCAG, SNAG and other groups.  There are serious discrepancies in the services of the Pension Act and other legislation (comprising the old charter) and the NVC.  One obvious point is that the NVC offers up to $1100 less per month compared to the Pension Act for disabled Veterans.  There is no Attendance Allowance in the NVC.  The NVC still reflects the insurance culture that was supposed to be altered by 2007, but has not been changed.  VAC should provide more income, no post-65 gaps, consider potential career progression (currently NVC has a nominal 2% increase in benefits while the average increase in federal income is much higher.) and more family support.  Again the paper identifies that the NVC is flawed and this is more than just problems with the lump sum.

The current funeral/burial benefits package needs to be increased.  This was also discussed in the stakeholders meeting.  It must be recognised that service to Canad will contribute to causes of death.  There are too few positive decisions in providing this benefit and others to the Veterans Community.

The transition to civilian life was presented in another form.  Rather than viewing it as a re-integration, it should be an integration because most Veterans have never had any work experience or life experiences as adult civilians.  The transition is difficult because of the lack of collaboration between DND and VAC.  There are duplications in programs and too many hurdles.  A transition needs to be seamless.

Sean Bruyea and I discussed the proposal for a public enquiry and restated what Don Leonardo had suggested before the stakeholder meeting on 24 October.  Sean has provided his reasons for this enquiry in his article and there will be future discussions of this proposal.

Inclusion of discussion on the name change of the NOAC to the Naval Association of Canada (NAC) may seem odd for a national meeting, but it is symbolic of the need for changes in the Veterans Community.  One of the reasons for having associations is to maintain and support the Veterans Community.  Camaraderie is much more than standing round the bar of the local branch.  It includes support for Veterans, their families and dealing with common issues.  The NOAC has not limited its activities to its membership, rather it has worked for the benefit of the entire community.  Its wider scope will be reflected in the new name.

I had a minor disagreement about the numbers of representatives.  It  was suggested that the numbers decrease, while I want an increase.  There should be more efforts to communicate, educate and cooperate.  A few representatives attending a few meetings will not solve major problems.  Every time that I participate in any Veterans related activity, I have learned something new and shared my thoughts with more people.

I hope that this has been a useful summary of two important meetings.  I look forward to attending future meetings as a Veteran and an advocate.  I am more optimistic about the future than I was before the meetings.  There is a lot to accomplish and I want to be involved as much as possible.  It is my way of honouring the sacrifices of other Veterans and their families.

Perry Gray, Chief Editor VVi

 
 
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