Ottawa - July 16, 2011
Since I became Veterans Ombudsman, much has happened to put everything in place to help us better meet our objectives and the needs of Veterans and their families. Before summer vacations begin for many of you, I wanted to update you on the progress made here at the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, and give you a sense of what the priorities will be for the coming months.
A few weeks into my mandate, it became obvious to me that I had to take time to strengthen the organization. Much work has gone into reorganizing, restructuring and filling vacant positions, as well as reducing interim assignments.
All management positions are now filled: Gary Walbourne (Director General and Deputy Ombudsman), Pierre Guénette (Director of Research and Investigations) and Lynda Leblanc (Director of Communications and Outreach) have joined the Office in the last few months, and have quickly taken their place alongside Michel Guay (Director of Early Intervention and Corporate Services), Diane Guilmet-Harris (Legal Counsel) and Charlie Cue (Policy Advisor). A solid structure is important, but without governance, an organization is bound to fail, which is why efforts were invested in putting into place administrative and operational procedures that introduce a disciplined approach to our administration and our operations.
The Veterans Ombudsman Advisory Committee has also been restructured to support a new approach, and to ensure that a broad range of views and experiences are reflected on the Committee. There are now three categories of membership: six military Veterans’ representatives and one RCMP Veteran; three professional advisors from academia, health care or other fields related to planned systemic investigations; and affiliate members comprised of individuals with varied areas of expertise and experience who I will turn to on occasion for advice. The list of members will soon be posted on our Web site. This new advisory team will serve the Office well in assessing the impact of changes proposed by Veterans Affairs Canada to programs and services, and selecting issues for systemic reviews.
Veterans Affairs Canada
I also invested considerable time building relationships with senior officials of the Department, so that my Office can be in the loop, and in a position to intervene if decisions or actions related to the Transformation Agenda or any other changes create unfairness in the treatment of Veterans or their families. The Office has also shared with the Department some of its tools, the Wiki and the Benefits Navigator, which is an interactive tool that provides a visual representation of the benefits to which a Veteran may be eligible based on his individual circumstances. The Department has seen the value of this tool for its employees and for Veterans and is now testing it. I hope to have good news about this in the next few months.
At my first meeting with Minister Blaney, I was able to explain my dual role as his special advisor and as the ombudsman for Veterans. This was a good opportunity to engage him and seek his support for changes to the Funeral and Burial Expenses Program, and inform him of my intentions to review systemic issues related to the Veterans Independence Program, long-term care, mental health and families.
Veterans Organizations and Parliamentarians
Reaching out to Veterans organizations has also been a priority. I have met with officials of various organizations to explain my role and approach, assure them that I would listen to their voices, and to seek their support in identifying emerging or pressing issues of concern, so that I may inform the Minister in my role as special advisor.
I also appeared before parliamentary committees where I had the opportunity to speak on Veterans issues, particularly related to mental health and the New Veterans Charter. On the latter, the Office was instrumental in having a clause included in Bill C-55 that calls for the mandatory parliamentary review of the New Veterans Charter in two years time. The Office is already preparing for this review, and I will be able to update you in the next few months on our plans. In the meantime, we are monitoring the regulatory process for Bill C-55 and the changes to the Earnings Loss Benefit to ensure fairness in the application of the enhancements. On the Earnings Loss Benefit, I will continue to raise the issue of differential benefits for part-time reservists.
On the outreach side, the election campaign got in the way so to speak, but since then, I addressed two major groups namely, the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, and the National Association of Federal Retirees. My message to organizations such as these is that Veterans continue to contribute to Canadian society after they retire. For me, it’s important to raise awareness of the fact that today’s Veterans and the more than 6,000 men and women who retire every year from the Canadian Forces and the RCMP enrich their communities with their integrity, skills and leadership qualities. I believe that if there was more recognition of that fact, there would also be increased support for programs and services for Veterans who have sustained service-related injuries or illnesses.
More recently, I attended the Canadian Veterans National Rendezvous in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It was an outstanding event that brought together Veterans of all ages, serving members and their families in a celebration of service and the One Veteran concept, which is the theme that I have chosen to guide my efforts throughout my mandate. I would like to offer my sincere thanks to Michael Blais and the Canadian Veterans Advocacy for organizing this event.
The communications team is now planning an extensive outreach program starting in September 2011. We will begin posting information on locations and dates on our Web site in the weeks to come, so please visit the Web site regularly and offer suggestions on opportunities for me to meet with Veterans. Virtual outreach and outreach to parliamentarians are also being planned, so stay tuned for more information.
Providing Assistance to Veterans through Early Intervention
And of course, the early intervention work continues to be our bread and butter. Our ability to inform, assist and intervene in over 2,000 cases a year indicates that we are effective in meeting the demands of concerned Veterans. Through the handling of individual cases, the early intervention team often identifies systemic issues that can affect many more Veterans. For example, in addressing the complaint of a Veteran, we found that half of the 1,800 Veterans with a disability assessment of 98% and more, had never been informed that they may be eligible for the Exceptional Incapacity Allowance under the Pension Act. After raising this issue, the Department corrected the situation by sending a letter to all those Veterans who had not applied for the Allowance.
Another example: under the Veterans Independence Program, the Department provides financial assistance for housekeeping and grounds maintenance services. However, in our discussions with the Department about the concerns of a Veteran who had called the Office for assistance, we found that expenses for hedge trimming were only reimbursed under the Program if there was a safety issue. We challenged the Department on that, and as a result of our intervention, the Department is currently reviewing the policy to include edge trimming as a normal expense. We expect the revised policy to be released by the end of the summer.
I encourage Veterans who are having difficulties with the Department to call the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman. The Early Intervention team is there to provide information, referrals and assistance in resolving issues. Each file that we open also provides valuable information that helps us identify trends and systemic issues.
While many challenges lie ahead, I know that I can rely on a strong team that firmly believes in the mandate of the Office, and together with your input and support, we can make a difference for Veterans and their families.
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