Changes Abound for Veteran Pensions

The Liberal pledge to overhaul pensions for Veterans was a key campaign promise in 2015, but veterans won’t see any changes until next year, and the benefits are significantly less than promised. Any hope that the Trudeau administration’s replacement for the existing system was going to live up to the hype was dashed when the government revealed its new plan at the end of 2017. Prime Minister Trudeau has sought to heal some of the ill will between his party and Veterans since taking office, but assessments of how the government deals with veterans have been persistently low.

Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) have been working to implement a number of changes under the Trudeau administration but there has been much criticism that the VAC is failing to perform its key role of supporting veterans.

The pension plan that was unveiled in December offers a lifelong pension as an alternative to the existing lump sum pension. Starting in April 2019, veterans will be able to choose between the two options but critics point out that the pre-2006 pensions are more than twice as valuable, and many see the overhaul as a retreat from the lofty promises Trudeau made in 2015.

For most veterans, the key change between the 2019 and pre-2006 pensions will be a lack of additional income for spouses and children of injured veterans. When the Liberals instituted a lump sum scheme under the New Veterans Charter in 2005, much of the disapproval at the time focused on the lack of funding for spouses or children, and today’s criticism echo those faced by Trudeau’s predecessors, despite his attempts to shake the negative associations of the unpopular Veterans Charter.

Parliamentary Secretary Sherry Romanado speaks with BGen (ret'd) Jack Watts
during a celebration of the new partnership arrangement for specialized long-term care beds for
Veterans at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre. (VAC PHOTO)

When the changes were announced by Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan, the official statement explained that the new arrangement would focus on support to Veterans who have been injured. “Our pension-for-life plan is a combination of benefits that provide recognition, income support and stability to veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members who experience a service-related illness or injury.” O’Regan’s official statement acknowledged that the new system was attempting to consider problems that many had about the Veterans Charter. “We are addressing concerns made by the veteran and military communities by allowing those with a service-related injury or illness to determine the best form of compensation that works for them and their families.” The new system’s amalgamation of the Veterans Charter’s lump sum with a ‘Pension for Life’, as touted by the Prime Minister in his election campaign, has come under fire from many who say it will likely provide much less for many than the previous scheme.

Criticism of the lump sum option in the old Veterans Charter see the choice between a pension for life or lump sum as a potential problem for the future, particularly for younger veterans who might opt for a large cash pay out and fail to consider the long term implications. A senior official pointed to the benefits of the changes, highlighting the improvements to those who have been most grievously hurt. “Those most catastrophically injured will receive greater financial compensation on our new plan, compared to those on the Pension Act”.   While most veterans will have to wait until April 2019  to see how the pension for life scheme impacts their livelihood, April 2018 saw the implementation of an expanded Veteran Family Program, which was announced by O’Regan in March 2018 and designed to offer expanded services at any of 32 Military Family Resource Centres (MFRC) across the country. The expansion builds on a pilot that was run at seven such centres, and aims to improve transition from service to civilian life. “We know that when a member of the military serves, their family serves too. That’s why in just a few short weeks, medically-released Veterans and their families will have access to the Veteran Family Program at all 32 Military Family Resource Centres across the country,” said O’Regan as part of the announcement.

The changes brought in as part of the Veteran Family Program could bring more significant benefits to veterans than the pension adjustments. “The new Education and Training Benefit will provide up to $80,000 to help Veterans achieve their educational goals” reads the official announcement, just one of eight mandates designed to “provide direct support to caregivers, helps more families, supports mental health and offers greater education and training benefits that Veterans may need in their post-service lives”. The mandates offer other tangible benefits such as funding informal caregivers, an emergency fund, and a centre of excellence dedicated to PTSD and other mental health issues.

For issues facing Veterans on an everyday basis, such as access to education and support, could prove more valuable to rebuilding a life than any pension adjustment and the official statement from Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan seems to echo that sentiment. "Leaving the Canadian Armed Forces is a major life transition. These new investments make that transition easier for members and their families. The addition of these programs reflects our commitment to care and support for our military members today – and to attract our future recruits."  

The changes and existing elements of the Veteran Family Program amounts to $624 million over the next six years and will likely have life-changing consequences for veterans currently in the process of transitioning, as well as for numerous future veterans.

Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O’Regan helps kick off mental health week
by announcing the creation of the Centre of Excellence on PTSD and other related mental health conditions
with the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group (The Royal).

VAC has faced fierce criticism in its handling of older veterans. A report issued by the VAC Ombudsman in October 2017, highlighted problems with the existing Veterans Independence Program and the ever-increasing costs required to support elderly veterans. The report identified a lack of clarity as one drawback, stating that "eligibility criteria are often too complex and difficult for veterans or their family members to understand," and calling for rules to be more "transparent, understandable and based on the physical and mental health needs of the veteran." Criticism of VAC from the ombudsman’s report wasn’t limited to the Veterans Independence Program, it also called for better access to care homes, pointing out that “Veterans without an informal caregiver have a greater need for institutional care, and sometimes this care is most appropriately provided in an assisted living facility”, and highlighting the particular vulnerability of veterans “Without an informal caregiver, Veterans may have a greater need than other Canadians for institutional support.”

VAC was already in the process of addressing problems with assisted living facilities prior to the ombudsman’s report however, having reached agreements with a number of assisted living facilities to provide access to a wider pool of veterans. More Veterans are now eligible for priority access to long-term care funded by VAC. The department had been negotiating a series of new agreements with long-term care facilities and provincial health authorities and, along with the province of Ontario and the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre, celebrated the announcement of 25 Specialized Veterans beds in May 2017. The agreement runs for two years and is similar to five others negotiated during the last year with other facilities across Canada. For instance, as announced in May, 10 beds will be provided at Veterans Memorial Lodge at Broadmead in Victoria, British Columbia.

VAC also has an agreement in place for up to 25 beds at Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building in Halifax, Nova Scotia; 5 beds at Parkwood Institute in London, Ontario; 30 at Sunnybrook in Toronto; and 10 at the Carewest Colonel Belcher facility in Calgary, Alberta. All of these facilities continue to also care for Veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War. Prior to these agreements, VAC only provided priority admission to long-term care for Veterans who had served overseas during the Second World War or the Korean War prior to Armistice.

With these new agreements, priority access is also available to income-qualified Veterans who served in Canada for a minimum of 365 days, as well as to CAF and Allied Veterans. Facilities that previously provided care only to War Veterans will now provide preferred admission – and establish distinct waiting lists – to Veterans who did not previously qualify for access to these facilities.

Agreements with assisted living facilities have begun to address some of the problems found by the ombudsman but there are concerns that such arrangements won’t fix the long term problems faced by an ageing veteran population. “The agreements are certainly a positive sign,” says Ray McInnis, director of the Royal Canadian Legion’s service bureau. “But remember that these are all short-term agreements. And the number of eligible Veterans is greater than the number of new beds. The men and women who’ve served their country deserve a complete solution.”

The report blames complicated rules for preventing veterans from gaining access to the services they might be entitled to. “The complexity of each of the programs separate and distinct eligibility criteria makes it nearly impossible for a Veteran (or family member) to determine or understand their entitlement to benefits.” A key factor for a changing population of veterans is attached to benefits that are accessible due to a ‘service related’ need as opposed to needs that exist but aren’t service related.  

As the number of veterans who qualify as War Service Veterans (those who fought in WWII, or Korea before Armistice) continues to shrink, many facilities that provide long term care will have less access to federal cash, resulting in fewer benefits. The VAC Ombudsman’s report highlighted this problem. “While CAF Veterans who are not War Service Veterans (including NVC Veterans), can access the LTC Program, their only gateway is a service-related injury that caused the need for admission to a LTC facility”. It has become unclear for many veterans, particularly younger veterans of conflicts such as Afghanistan, that they may not receive the same automatic access to benefits in care that older generations were guaranteed. As it stands, access to such benefits will be tied to a service-related injury rather than the service itself. The COO of the The Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre, Mary Boutette, explained this to FrontLine “These individuals always had access to long-term care but they did not have priority access – or guaranteed access – to a long-term care facility that had been created to address the issues and care needs of Veterans.”

As the Liberal government pushes ahead with reform, and attempts to address the pressing concerns faced by so many veterans, a gap is forming between those veterans of WWII and the Korean War, and all others. Older veterans had access to priority care as well as long term pensions that accounted for their individual needs. There could soon be a generation of veterans for whom such support might not exist. If the government is seeking to ensure that all veterans are provided for, then it might be best to remove arbitrary boundaries to access and instead attempt to address veterans as a singular group, regardless of age, injury, or era of service.

Ian J. Keddie is a freelance defence writer based in Toronto.