News  Vets protest benefit troubles

Hospital management and categorization of care upsets

This year, as Canadians from all walks of life pay tribute to Canada’s fallen soldiers, some veterans and their families are facing uncertainty about what the future holds in store for them.

On Saturday, roughly eighty veterans and their supporters gathered in front of Bloc Québécois MP Josée Beaudin’s St. Lambert office as part of the Veterans National Day of Protest. They were protesting changes to veteran pensions and disability benefits prescribed by the New Veterans Charter.

The veterans also opposed the transfer of Ste. Anne’s Hospital – a facility operated by the federal government to exclusively treat and rehabilitate veterans – from the federal government to the provincial government. Their fear is that both these measures could lead to a deterioration of veterans’ quality of life.

The New Veterans Charter was adopted in 2006 and changed how various benefits – like pensions and disability – are paid. Pierre Allard, Director of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Service Bureau, told The Daily that the legion supports the charter, but recognizes certain problems with it.

In June 2009, the New Veterans Charter Advisory Group (NVCAG) – of which Allard is a member – released a report entitled “Honouring our Commitments to Veterans and their Families.” Allard says that the report should be regarded as the “blueprint” for treatment of veterans.

The report emphasizes the nature of the charter as a “living” document, saying that “the spirit and intent of the New Veterans Charter is right,” but that “there are still gaps in services.”

The report points out that Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC) does not cover the cost of bereavement services for fallen soldiers, and that only four Permanent Impairment Allowances had been awarded as of January 2009, despite 149 veterans being deemed “totally and permanently incapacitated” as of October 2008. The VAC website describes the benefit as a monthly taxable allowance payable to soldiers suffering from lost job opportunities due to service-related impairments
In spite of these flaws, Allard did not waver in his support for the charter, saying that it is an effective rehabilitation support tool, and that it “encourages ability rather than disability.” He remained confident that the recommendations made by NVCAG to address the problems would be heeded.

Former VAC Ombudsman Pat Stogran, whose five-year term as VAC Ombudsman came to a controversial end yesterday after his appointment was not renewed, has been less forgiving. While accepting the New Veterans Charter as a blueprint for veteran treatment, he pointed out that it was roughly five years ago that the charter was adopted, and stressed that the recommended changes were long overdue.

Stogran wrote in a September 24 blog post that the changes to the charter should be “timely, comprehensive, transparent and retroactive.”

He added that “the fact that the Government was slow to make changes to a flawed piece of legislation should not be reason to penalize veterans who have basically suffered in silence until now.” He also expressed skepticism about the changes being any more than a tweaking of existing benefits, rather than reevaluation of the charter and its effects.

Stogran is also concerned about the existence, unbeknownst to the public, of different classes of veterans. The VAC divides veterans into two separate groups: Traditional and Canadian Forces (CF). Traditional veterans are those who fought in the second World War and the Korean War, while CF veterans are those that have fought in every war since. Stogran pointed out on his blog that certain services and facilities are only accessible to Traditional veterans, while the “eligibility criteria are so restrictive for CF veterans that it makes the numbers of those who receive [long term care] almost negligible.”

This is precisely the case of Ste. Anne’s Hospital. Because access to the hospital is restricted to Traditional veterans, there will soon no longer be a need for it to be a “veterans” hospital, given the scarcity of surviving Traditional veterans. Meanwhile, there is a fear that injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan and future missions will have to compete for beds with the civilian population, and be treated in facilities where the specificities of military injuries are poorly understood.

Given that Quebec has been struggling to provide effective health services to its general population, there are persistent fears in veteran communities about the transfer of the hospital from federal to provincial jurisdiction.

Corporal Matt Ramsey of Montreal’s Black Watch Regiment – recently returned from his first tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan – said that “the concern…is that the provincial government isn’t going to care as much.”

Ramsey also added, however, that “none of this particularly matters because anybody who is a veteran of any war other than World War II [and the Korean war] isn’t eligible anyways.”