Re-designing VAC for today’s needs is critical


The following article looks at how Veterans Affairs Canada must reform its structure, policies and operations to meet the dire needs of today’s wounded veterans. Even the term disabled has changed by all the factors affecting any disability, whether mental or physical. As it now stands, VAC is a dysfunctional dinosaur. BONNIE

Innovation key to reforming Veterans Affairs Canada
Today’s vets are more educated, know their rights, and need more flexible service than in past generations.
By JESSICA BRUNO
Published August 22, 2011, in The Hill Times in Ottawa   

Veterans Affairs needs to start innovating if it’s going to serve the wave of veterans coming home from Afghanistan with a host of needs unique to their generation, says veterans advocate Michel Drapeau.

“We were on a war footing up until a month ago, now we have to make sure we have the tools, the mechanisms, the institutions and the services required to meet this potential wave of claimants. I don’t see evidence of this planning taking place,” Mr. Drapeau told The Hill Times.

Mr. Drapeau, a retired armed forces colonel, said he’s heard from an increasing number of veterans who are dissatisfied with the service they’re getting from Veterans Affairs.

“I’ve seen a degree of discontent and a degree of dissatisfaction with the matter in which claims and claimants are being handled now that I’ve never seen before, and I find that deplorable,” he said.

Of the 2,700 Canadian troops in Afghanistan this summer, 1,900 were set to be shipped home by the end of July. With their return, Veterans Affairs will be dealing with an increasing cohort of people who have needs that are different from their fathers and grandfathers, said Mr. Drapeau.

Today’s veteran is more highly-educated, knows their rights, and needs a more flexible type of service than in past generations, Mr. Drapeau explained.

“In general terms, I would say they are unique in some way because of the medical services that are provided in theatre and the rapid evacuation that can take place. Injuries that in the past that would have probably resulted in death can now result in basically a successful evacuation. But the results from that can be daunting: missing limbs, etcetera, and associated mental health problems,” said Pierre Allard, director of the Royal Canadian Legion‘s service bureau.

Mr. Allard has spent 10 years helping veterans access their government services and benefits.

Liberal veterans affairs critic Sean Casey (Charlottetown, P.E.I.) said that it will be a challenge for the department to deal with soldiers returning with mental health issues like post traumatic stress disorder. Veterans Affairs’ headquarters is in Mr. Casey’s riding.

“It’s a heck of a lot tougher to diagnose, to treat and to help as compared to the injuries of old when we had people stepping on land minds and having limbs amputated,” he said. “It’s much more complex when you’re dealing with someone’s mind.”

According to Mr. Allard, Veterans Affairs serves 14,000 people with mental health problems, 2,000 of whom are still serving.

The challenge facing the department now is how to continue providing services to the aging veterans while helping the new ones, said Mr. Drapeau.

“What I’m saying is we need to switch gears,” he explained. “Maybe we need a different skill set, maybe we need to change our claimant procedures or deploy more resources.”

To jump-start that transformation, Mr. Drapeau said he thinks it might be time for some fresh blood at the department.

Suzanne Tining has been deputy minister at the department since 2007.

“If she’s done anything, she’s been exceptionally skilled at keeping it under a bushel because we haven’t heard of any specific plan to rejuvenate or to bring vision or a change in processes,” said Mr. Drapeau. “It’s not that she’s done a good or a bad job, because we haven’t got anything to measure this by. I’m looking at output.”

Last October, the former chief operating officer for Public Health, Mary Chaput, was brought into Veterans Affairs as associate deputy minister.

“She’s in charge of the transformation agenda,” said Mr. Allard.

The department’s minister, Steven Blaney (Lévis-Bellechasse, Que.), was appointed May 18, following the defeat of the previous minister, Jean-Pierre Blackburn in the spring election.

It’s too soon to tell whether Mr. Blaney will be a serious veterans advocate, said Mr. Casey and Mr. Drapeau.

Mr. Drapeau said that he is looking to see whether Mr. Blaney follows in Mr. Blackburn’s footsteps.

“I gained the impression that Minister Blackburn really took his job to heart and was moving about to do some of the things I’m alluding to, and if Minister Blaney carries on in that field, he’s going to get full support from me,” he said.

Conservative MP Eve Adams (Mississauga-Brampton South, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary to Mr. Blaney, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The department’s reputation is still on the mend after Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart reported last fall that it had breached the privacy of Gulf War veteran Sean Bruyea by circulating his mental health records to hundreds of bureaucrats in the department. It has also faced criticism over the New Veterans Charter, introduced in 2006, which was meant to be a living document but has taken five years to amend. Some changes introduced with the charter, such as a lump sum payout for disability claims, were unpopular with veterans.

“I have received through my own practice, but also through my contract with various individuals at every level, a disenchantment with the time taken, the decisions being made, and the bureaucratization of the benefit system,” said Mr. Drapeau.

People disappointed with the system comes with the territory for any service organization, said Mr. Casey.

“From time to time you do hear from veterans that feel they haven’t been treated fairly. In fairness, that same sort of thing we hear from people who deal with provincial welfare authorities, we hear that all the time from people that deal with those who decide who gets low-income housing, we hear it all the time from people who deal with Revenue Canada,” he said.

The department has taken steps to move forward, said Mr. Allard. It is currently working on making veterans’ service health records, which are a key document for any veteran who wants to access services and benefits, electronic.

“That will be helpful, and that will cut down on some of the time to process claims at various levels,” said Mr. Allard.

Digitizing health records is also a part of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s overhaul of that country’s department of veterans affairs. In 2009, he launched Transformation 21, which aims to transform the culture of the department, its management structure and service delivery, while creating new services to meet veterans’ needs.

In Canada, Mr. Allard said Veterans Affairs needs to engage in more research on how service affects veterans’ health, to better understand what benefits to provide to them. He noted that the Repatriation Medical Authority in Australia has helped that country serve its veterans. There, researchers review the latest research on service-related disabilities and establish benefit guidelines, similar to Canada’s entitlement eligibility guidelines.

“Unfortunately at Veterans Affairs, that whole process of developing the EEGs is not as structured as it is in Australia through that Repatriation Medical Authority. These are things that I think the department needs to look at in their transformation agenda,” said Mr. Allard.

Right now, Veterans Affairs operates on an “ad hoc” basis, he noted. For instance, it was only after pushing by the ALS Society and the Legion that Canada acknowledged ALS was a service-related illness, after Australia and the U.S. had already reacted to new research done in the field, said Mr. Allard.

“If they were doing this more systematically, I think it would better serve the needs of veterans. They’re doing it, it’s just not as structured,” he said.

Mr. Allard noted that caring for veterans is a complex issue that also involves the Canadian Forces. Forces members who were injured mentally or physically in the line of duty are given time to recover before they are assessed to see if they are again fit for duty. If they aren’t ready for duty at that point, they’re reassigned to a joint personnel support unit. In this unit, they get the services they need to recuperate. After three years, they’re assessed again and either put back into service or discharged. If a soldier is discharged, Veteran’s Affairs Integrated Personnel Support Centres offer help finding work and two-years of outreach.

“Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs have to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible, which is why they have set up 24 IPSC units across the country, which are manned by Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs personnel,” said Mr. Allard.

Veterans Affairs Canada has three branches and four divisions, with 3,900 employees across the country, according to Treasury Board Secretariat statistics for 2009. It serves more than 200,000 people, including veterans, current members of the Canadian Forces, and their surviving spouses.

Whatever the organizational challenges facing the departments, Mr. Drapeau said money is not one of them. The department’s budget is $3.4-billion according to its 2010-2011 main estimates.

“I don’t think it’s a funding issue, I think it’s an organizational issue, and that’s a good thing,” said Mr. Drapeau.

“The issue is to look inside and … to re-organize,” he said, noting that the Department of National Defence is poised to undergo its own transformation under the advice of Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, chief of transformation for the Canadian Forces.

Preserving the department’s existing ability to serve veterans is at the top of Mr. Casey’s mind as the government starts reviewing expenditures for across the board cuts.

“The most important thing is to ensure that veterans and those who administer and deliver services to them aren’t getting short-changed,” he said.

Along with every other department and agency, Veterans Affairs is expected to come up with plans for a five or 10 per cent cut to its operating budget.

Mr. Allard said that he doesn’t envy the task before Veterans Affairs, and right now, there needs to be a period of calm so that work on a transformation can begin in earnest.

“At the end of the day, I think that veterans will be better served if we think constructively about what we can all do in the future,” he said.

jbruno@hilltimes.com

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About Bonnie Toews and John Christiansen

Bonnie's Blog Posts invite our readers and free spirits everywhere to share life's adventures with us. I talk about writing my novels, reading books, chatting with other writers and John's and my journeys around the world. We welcome your anecdotes to our experiences and discussions.
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3 Responses to Re-designing VAC for today’s needs is critical

  1. Murray Scott says:

    Every once in awhile you read something that really moves you and tugs at your heart strings. These comments by the Ombudsman are one of those statements that tug very hard at my heart of hearts.
    I think it speaks to courage which all Veterans have demonstrated whether disabled or not.
    I must admit that at times I am a bit of a coward that has some difficulty in speaking my mind when it is different than some of the Veterans Groups or Organizations. However this may be due to my age and an old way of finding solutions.
    When I soul search I find myself asking why I tend to shut-up and not speak out when people do a good job.
    An example; over the last 45 years I have had many many injustices done and have had a lot of rejections by Veteran’s Affairs. My hopes and dreams were dashed by VAC and an accident that changed my direction in life.
    The point is in my heart of hearts I believe VAC does a good job with what they have to work with. Yes there are many set backs and poor treatment directed towards Veterans but there are equally if not more good things that VAC does as well.
    I have met some wonderful people in VAC and even the Ombudsman’s Office.
    In the last 45 years I have never experienced so many people reaching out to help Veterans as there is now.
    There are many injustices that all Veterans experience and some of them terrible. However I have also seen the good people at VAC being attacked for trying to help those of us in need.
    Today as opposed to the days gone by I see some Veterans trying to get change by speaking louder than VAC and hopeing that by speaking louder they will get their own way.
    Are the days of trying to work through issues gone? I honestly don’t know. The one thing I do know is that VAC does a lot of good with what they have to work with.
    For the first time in many many years I feel safe that I can express my views.
    I don’t think I will see the change in my days but I will keep praying that all Veterans will get equal treatment with respect and care.
    Murray Scott
    Edmonton Alberta

  2. Murray Scott says:

    Ottawa – August 23, 2011
    From Omdudsman site:

    When I left the Forces in 2002, I was looking to join a Veterans organization so that I could continue experiencing the camaraderie that is so strong in the military culture and to have the feeling that I belonged to an organization that cared. Other than joining my occupation’s association, I never joined any other organization, but I accomplished my aim by maintaining a tie with my military comrades and the system, first by working with the National Defence Ombudsman and now as the Veterans Ombudsman. But I do remember that at that time, there were very few organizations other than the traditional ones.

    Today, there are many choices, and many voices. Is this a bad thing? It should not be, because the concerns of Veterans have to be heard. However what is said and how it is presented is important. I also believe that an important role for these diverse Veterans groups is to provide opportunities for their members to carry on with friendships and camaraderie that originated in a specific area of war or operation, and to commemorate mission-related events and battle honours .

    Many organizations have taken on a public voice that, when factual and informed, is a valuable source of information for our Veterans. It is easy to make statements about how badly Veterans are treated but I believe that such statements are much more effective when they are supported with facts and recommendations to fix the problems. That takes objectivity, research and analysis.

    When organizations or individuals who should support and assist attempt to demean each other or vie for the honour of bashing the existing government, each individual Veteran loses, as does the Veteran community at large.

    To denigrate the value of certain programs in public because they do not meet one’s own personal needs based on exceptional circumstances is a cultural shift for members who once accepted service with unlimited liability and without questions. In addition, the proliferation of personal information related to circumstances of specific cases makes a mockery of our Privacy Act, when the same message contains complaints about invasion of their privacy by staff of Veterans Affairs Canada accessing information in order to identify individual need.

    A while ago, the Canadian Navy, Army, and Air Force integrated into one service as the Canadian Forces. Although there were challenges at first, the newly assimilated culture seems to be functioning very well. Yes there was some inter-service and inter-unit rivalry but it became more constructive as a result of the integration, and when conducting operations, we fought for each other, side by side, with a common aim. The effectiveness of the Canadian Forces has always hinged on our unwavering belief that we will support and protect each other and those we are assigned to care for no matter what is thrown at us. I believe that the Veterans community would also benefit from some form of integration , an ‘amalgamation` of minds’ that is, where all Veterans organizations would speak as one on some critical issues that have been researched and documented, with recommendations to Veterans Affairs Canada to rectify problems. In fact, the knowledge, experience and energy in the Veterans population, should and can be very powerful instruments to effect change if well focussed.

    The role of an Ombudsman is to be a neutral and impartial agent. While I cannot personally endorse any particular representative or advocacy group, as the only government-mandated voice for Veterans, I can play an important role in bringing Veterans’ concerns to the attention of the Minister and other decision makers through regular informal discussions and by, for example, preparing a yearly compendium of issues of concerns identified by all organizations and Veterans who embrace the vision that “All Canadian Veterans will be treated fairly and in accordance with the Veterans Bill of Rights”. My dual role as Veterans Ombudsman and special advisor to the Minister also gives me the opportunity to provide a Veterans’ perspective on issues that are brought to his attention by the Department, to apprise him of issues that he might not otherwise hear about, and to make recommendations to correct unfair situations.

    In addition, my Office can intervene at any time with the Department if someone identifies a case with compelling circumstances; this is why we review carefully all e-mails received and all comments posted on our Facebook page.

    I know how much time many of you have invested and the incredible value-added that you have brought to the discussion that has raised the awareness of Veterans issues. Despite our collective differences on some issues, I commend the passion and energy that you have shown in trying to care for our Veterans and their families.

    All this to say that just as we were in the service, we are all in this together; we are not distinguished by where and when we served but united by the fact that we served without questions. Our goal should be the same: to ensure that those who serve have access to the services and opportunities they need, in recognition of their service and of the individual sacrifices they and their families have made.

    Guy Parent

  3. Thank you, Murray, for reminding us of the good VAC achieves and for bringing a larger perspective to veterans’ issues with their treatment by VAC and for adding the veterans’ ombudsman’s outlook in the ongoing discussions leading up to the veterans’ fall protest rally. Lest we all forget: ONE VETERAN. ONE STANDARD.

    Bonnie

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