18 Mar Ombudsman takes Vance, Sajjan, bureaucrats to task for failing to help military personnel
DAVID PUGLIESE, OTTAWA CITIZEN
Last Wednesday (March 8) Gary Walbourne, the DND/Canadian Forces Ombudsman, was invited to speak at the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. His speech did not get much coverage in the news media (I couldn’t find any).
But in our system of government, which has many so-called federal “watchdogs” who are often reluctant to speak out, Walbourne’s speech stands out.
Here below is his speech on the challenges facing members of the Canadian Armed Forces transitioning from military to civilian life. (I have put the more interesting passages in bold):
“Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Esteemed Senators, good afternoon to you all and thank you for this opportunity to appear before you to discuss issues surrounding the transition from military to civilian life.
As I have previously indicated in testimony given before other parliamentary committees, over half of the complaints that my office deals with on an annual basis are related to end of career issues.
While each case is unique, my office also tracks trends, and I launch systemic investigations accordingly. As you are aware, two of my latest reports provided the Minister of National Defence with simple, evidence-based recommendations that I believe can ease the administrative and procedural burdens that face our ill and injured men and women in uniform.
My recommendations are straightforward and easily implementable. They are:
1) First, that the Surgeon General be assigned the responsibility for determining whether an individual’s illness or injury is attributable to their service, and that Veterans Affairs Canada accept that determination to activate their benefit suite for the releasing member.
– We have estimated that this would cut the wait times for VAC benefits by at least 50%.
2) Second, that the Member not be released from the Canadian Armed Forces until ALL benefits and services, from ALL sources, including Veterans Affairs, are in place.
– This includes their Canadian Forces pensions.
3) Third, that a Concierge Service be put in place, staffed by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, to help the member navigate the complex release process.
4) Finally, that one easily navigable, COMMON web portal be created containing all relevant information on the benefits and services from Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Armed Forces.
Senators, you would think that this blueprint would be accepted and implemented as quickly as possible. It has not.
Unfortunately, I received two nebulous responses from the Minister of National Defence, indicating that some of my recommendations “had merit”, but provided no definitive indication that any of these would be put in place.
We have also heard from General Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff that the Canadian Armed Forces were going to hold medically-releasing members until everything was in place and that a concierge service is forthcoming. This is encouraging, but in reality we are not there.
We know also that it is fully within the Minister and/or Chief of the Defence Staff authority to hold the member until those benefits are activated – but members are still being released before that time.
Ladies and gentlemen, some of the struggles of releasing members of the Canadian Armed Forces have been brought to the attention of the public. There is no way you can sugarcoat them. They are stories of financial hardship, emotional stress, and senseless frustration. We have members of the Canadian Armed Forces who served our country for decades, with multiple deployments and citations under their belts, who face the threat of eviction or ARE EVICTED from their homes and face financial ruin while awaiting their severance pay, first pension cheque, or benefits adjudications. This is completely avoidable.
It appears that administratively burdensome processes are developed to try to answer narrowly defined questions. More distressing is that the desired outcomes remain unspecific. I served for almost four years as the Deputy Ombudsman at Veterans Affairs Canada. There are issues that are being discussed today that we were discussing in 2011, and they have yet to be solved.
It is easy to blame a previous administration’s “inaction” as the root cause of all the woes facing a government department. However, while administrations change, bureaucracy does not. There have been more reviews than there need to have been. The answers lie before us, but someone has to think and act boldly and creatively, and the buck stops at the top.
Through a combination of the information gathered from the Department of National Defence through my office’s daily interactions with them and the number of working groups that we sit on as observers – we have a pretty good idea of where both departments are going with their proposed “fixes” to the system. As it appears that the bureaucracy is growing.
What I have called for is a fundamental change to the existing system – stripping out the complexity, and building a service model that is based on sound logic. What I am seeing is the EXISTING deck chairs on the Titanic being rearranged for either aesthetics or so-called “optimization”.
In Fall 2016, in my testimony before two parliamentary committees, I told members of both chambers that I did not think that hiring more people was the answer to fixing this complex transition model. Getting this right will require hard work, but what is needed the most is recognition that the system as it currently exists, is fundamentally flawed and does not need patchwork, but rather a fundamental shift in not only what but as importantly how it meets the need.
You know, Senators, one of the more enjoyably absurd moments that I experienced over this past year was reading a particular slide deck prepared by Veterans Affairs and National Defence where they listed my office as a “low influence, low interest” party to all of this “closing the seam” work. If somehow, the departments’ are contending that this office of last resort, whom people call when the system fails them, does not have a real stake in the outcome of their new transition model, then I openly question their ability to understand the bigger picture.
My business is to investigate and seek remedy to individual cases, and if enough of the same cases exist, I investigate why, systemically, they happen. I then tell the Minister, the head of the organization, what he can do to fix things, not on a one-off but on an ongoing basis. Senators, my mandate cannot get any clearer cut. I am uniquely positioned to offer advice, yet it appears to fall on deaf ears.
Let me give you a couple examples of what I am seeing on the ground.
First, the amount of people and working groups currently feeding into this review is dizzying. Second, there are multiple initiatives that appear to be disconnected. Initiatives such as “Convergence”, “the Journey”, and “Care, Compassion and Respect 2020”, reinforce this intrinsic preference to “review” rather than “act”.
In fact, Senators, with all due respect I fear that your attempts to review the issue of transition have been born out of your inability, as lawmakers, to get clear information about what is going on behind closed doors. This must be impossibly frustrating.
Allow me to provide you an example of what I am talking about. I took the time to review the latest testimony provided by VAC and CAF officials to the other chamber’s Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. I found it confusing and in some cases, dichotomous.
As I previously mentioned, I received a nebulous response from the Minister of National Defence on my recommendation to have the Surgeon General determine Attribution of Service. In his reply, the Minister indicated that the Canadian Armed Forces has no extant statutory or policy mandate in which to make this a reality. In fact, he does. He is the Minister. Additionally, as I mention in my report, the Canadian Armed Forces already determine attribution of service for a number of different categories of personnel, including for Reservists. So, they already do it.
Now, in committee last week, it was stated that, and I quote, “the decision to transition out or to remain in the forces, it’s an administrative decision that’s done by the Director, Military Career Administration (DMCA), and it’s based on the fact that the medical employment limitation meets the Universality of Service or not”.
What the Surgeon General has said before committee is that they set the Medical Employment Limitations and make suggestions to DMCA, but that they are not comfortable going any further in their responsibilities.
So, DMCA makes its determination based on the Medical Employment Limitations as specified by the information provided by the Surgeon General – which contains whether or not the injury was sustained in service. That, by another name, is Attribution of Service. A rose by any other name….
So the small change in accountability, if ordered by the Minister, could be swiftly implemented.
Currently, of ALL the veterans under the care of Veterans Affairs, only 25% of them are identified at release. Understanding that a number of these individuals will late manifest, especially if they suffer from an Operational Stress Injury, I believe that that number should be and could be higher. Assigning a single point of accountability of determining whether an illness or injury was service-related for a medically releasing member ensures that there is no one left in the dark about what their benefits and services they may receive when they set foot on Civy Street. Holding that member in the Armed Forces until they are in place eliminates the pain and anguish associated with not knowing or being in control of their own post-military destiny.
Senators, if your committee is going to commence yet another review on the subject of transition and care for the ill and injured, I encourage you to leave the confines of the Ottawa bubble and get out on the road, visit the Integrated Personnel Support Units, talk to the members AND their families on the ground. What you will hear will be quite different from the bureaucratic talking points delivered to you here at committee. My organization has been on the ground, on the front lines since 1998, and we witness that disconnect on a daily basis.
The sole purpose of our work in this process is to ensure that the releasing member is fully prepared to take their first steps into civilian life. We are not here to empower the core public service, nor are we here to boost the egos of people in positions of power. We serve the members, so let’s make sure we build a system that empowers them. Right now, we are not living up to our end of the bargain. If we do that, then we can start to change the narrative.”