Screwing veterans to balance the books

NationalPost.com – FullComment
02/10/13.   Matt Gurney

In 2006, the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper implemented the New Veterans Charter, an update to previous legislation defining the government’s responsibility to military and RCMP veterans, particularly those who had been injured, perhaps permanently, in the line of duty. Previously, a veteran who was deemed fully or partially disabled was entitled to financial support for life. Under the new charter, these lifetime support payments were replaced with one-time lump sum payments, up to a maximum of $250,000. Programs to help veterans retrain for civilian life or get an education were also launched.

It hasn’t worked out. Injured veterans of recent operations, most notably the war in Afghanistan, are measurably worst off than they would have been under the old system. Particularly absurd was the notion that a young warrior, just returned from a theatre of war with grievous injuries and likely psychological trauma, could simply be handed a large sum of money, thus discharging the government’s responsibility to them always and forever. Many veterans grappling with psychological trauma, after all, suffer from substance abuse or impulse control issues. A one-time cheque under such circumstances is almost an act of cruelty.

And the long-term results aren’t any better. This week, the Veterans Affairs ombudsman released a new report, outlining his conclusions after several years of studying the real-world effects of the new charter. The conclusions are bleak but not surprising. Calculating the total real-life effects of the New Veterans Charter is complicated, because some wounded veterans can draw disability payments and pensions from other sources. The report notes that it is not necessary for payments under the new charter to equal or exceed support from any other source, but simply to ensure that a wounded veteran continues to receive sufficient total support to sustain their standard of living after leaving uniformed service and, eventually, reaching old age.

For hundreds of veterans, this isn’t happening. When a veteran passes the age of 65, certain benefits end and others begin. But when all is said and done, the veteran, in many instances, will see their total level of support fall. Other veterans, who received a lump sum payout at the time of their discharge, will also discover as they enter their later years that the total sum of the payout is eventually exceeded — perhaps considerably exceeded — by what their ongoing support payments would have eventually amounted to, under the previous system.

It’s difficult to assess the overall state of veterans care, because each case is different. Rank at time of injury, number of years of service and extent of injury are all considered when determining what each veteran may receive (the report is full of hypothetical cases demonstrating the complexity of the system). But what is clear is that too many disabled Canadian veterans — hundreds, it is estimated — are entering their senior years without adequate means of providing a stable and dignified life for themselves. The burden for their care, which may involve complicated physical requirements due to potentially devastating battlefield injuries, will then fall upon the families of these veterans — families that also have suffered as a consequence of their injuries. This state of affairs is completely unacceptable.

There are other problems noted in the report, including too many veterans going without benefits they are entitled to and problems with the retraining and educational programs provided to former uniformed personnel. But the idea of veterans reaching old age only to live in poverty is by far the most troubling part of it, and the federal government is already responding. Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has announced that the government will immediately review the New Veterans Charter and assess its impact on Canadian veterans — this in spite of earlier declarations that it had no such plans.

It’s good to see Ottawa responding, but as the ombudsman has rightly pointed out, yet further reviews of the problems his report has already identified in detail will simply waste time and money. We know what the problems are, and they can be addressed with relatively modest allotments of tens of millions of dollars in funding boosts to Veterans Affairs.

This is a small price to pay to ensure that all of our veterans have a chance to make a smooth and successful transition to civilian life, and that those among them who’ve left parts of themselves behind while serving their country will not face destitution in their twilight years. Balancing the books on the backs of our wounded warriors is no way to run an economy or show support for our troops.

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