It’s time to reconsider service delivery at Veterans Affairs Canada
Ottawa – April 1, 2014
This text was authored by Guy Parent, Veterans Ombudsman and originally published in The Hill Times on Monday, March 31, 2014.
Too often structural changes are proposed to deal with problems that are actually the symptoms of a much larger issue. Concerning problems with service delivery at Veterans Affairs Canada, we need to deal with the root causes and, to do that effectively, we need to understand the end state we are trying to achieve. Simply going for structural change, as proposed by Michel Drapeau and Joshua Juneau in their January 13th, 2014 article in The Hill Times, where they put forward the need to create a new administrative oversight body, may justify the existence of such a new organization, but would it be any more effective than the current structure if we haven’t addressed the root causes of today’s problems? I don’t think so.
The support of Veterans and their families through effective and fair access to benefits – regardless of where or when one served – should be a priority for Canada. Since the current way of doing business is not generating the results needed to resolve the problems facing Veterans and their families, we need to change our vision of the future and tackle the problem of service delivery head-on at the root level.
I believe that the structural elements necessary to effectively deliver benefits and services to Veterans are in place today, but, the system continues to fail some of our Veterans for two primary reasons. The first reason is addressed in my Report on the New Veterans Charter and concerns the shortcomings in three Charter program areas: financial, vocational rehabilitation and assistance, and family support. The second reason is a complex, multilayered and outdated service delivery process.
The outcomes often experienced by Veterans who are denied benefits, after having gone through the entire application and appeal process, are a symptom of problems rooted in the application process itself. If we fixed the front end of the process, we would reduce the effort (and cost) currently expended to provide the various levels of appeal at the end of the process.
Specifically, if applicants had a clear understanding of application requirements; if they received full disclosure on what documentation the decision maker was considering; if they were consulted in the process when documentation was not sufficient, and; if they received very clear and understandable reasons for decisions that showed the logic for the decision, we would likely see a reduction in the number of reviews and appeals.
Indeed, I have reported on this in the past and emphasized that Veterans Affairs Canada and the Veterans Review and Appeal Board should be focusing on finding ways of making the right benefit adjudication decision on the first application based on liberally interpreting legislation, rather than expending effort (and cost) on perfecting the appeal process.
Let’s expand on this further.
Once service relationship has been established, what would happen if Veterans Affairs Canada started accepting Veterans’ documentation at the front end of the process at face value and applied a presumption that military service has an impact on Veterans and their family, that the majority of Veterans are honest and that medical professionals are qualified to provide the appropriate substantiation. Would the benefit adjudication process fall apart? I doubt it.
If the criteria are clearly communicated and a medical professional provides a diagnosis, why does every application need to be scrutinized further in the minutest detail? This level of examination for every application is slowing down the application process for all Veterans and affecting access for many eligible Veterans on the off chance that someone may not qualify for a benefit.
Is that fair?
Without getting into the mechanics of how this would work, let’s look at this idea conceptually. How would Canadians like it if the Canadian Revenue Agency made no presumptions when citizens file their income tax return? If they weren’t afforded some presumptions it would be a long, drawn out process for everyone with an audit on all of their filed information before a decision could be made. We’re talking months, if not years, on the adjudication of one tax year alone. I don’t think many Canadians would be happy with this scenario. Do you? So, why are Veterans subjected to such scrutiny by the Veterans Affairs Canada’s service delivery application process?
I suggest that Veterans Affairs Canada adopts a system similar to that used for the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, or the Canada Revenue Agency whereby if the documentation criteria are met, benefits are provided and periodic audits are done on files to ensure quality control and to detect any fraudulent applications. In fact, this approach is already being used by Veterans Affairs Canada in some areas of service delivery, such as health-related travel or the Veterans Independence Program, so why not for the application process of other benefits?
And, I’ll go further.
I believe that the current system of Veterans’ legislation is too complex. Generations of legislation has been piled on top of the other without sufficient attention to simplifying the complexity of this legislative build-up. Complexity is costly and at a time of economic restraint, would it not make sense to stop tinkering with individual components, collapse legislation and adopt a plain language approach.
In addition, is it not time for Veterans Affairs Canada to begin to truly liberally interpret legislation, as it is meant to do? Is it not time that the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada services and benefits are better aligned so that the transition from military service to civilian life is much less complex than it is today? Something as simple as starting a Veterans Affairs Canada file the moment a member joins the Canadian Armed Forces, conducting a direct transfer of files when a service person transitions from the Canadian Armed Forces to Veterans Affairs Canada, and providing a Veterans Identification Card when a service person leaves, could be major enablers to improve how services and benefits are provided.
Last fall, the Veterans Consultation Group called on the Government of Canada to have a “heroic moment” and do what is right for our Veterans and their families. Now is the time to move forward and reconsider service delivery at Veterans Affairs Canada.
Finding better ways to support our Veterans and their families is not impossible, but it does require a change in our vision of the future. The gaps that need to be addressed in the current suite of benefits have been identified and validated in my Report on the New Veterans Charter. We need to make these changes and then move forward with a new vision of service delivery at Veterans Affairs Canada. Anything less is a disservice to Veterans and their families and Canadian taxpayers.
The time for action is now. The future awaits us.
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