Looking After Veterans: Federal Government Must Do Much Better

In the days leading up to Remembrance Day, our nations’ thoughts will turn to the contributions of the men and women who served our country and gave their lives in times of war, armed conflicts, and peace.  Millions of Canadians will gather at cenotaphs, community centres, Legion and Army, Navy and Air force Veterans halls to honour the living, remember the fallen and thank currently serving Canadian Forces (CF) and RCMP personnel.

But rewind to November 5th when veterans across the country joined together for a National Day of Protest.  This is the second year veterans have organized a protest against the federal government to fight for better disability benefits and more support. 

What has happened so that veterans’ must take to the streets to demand better federal government programs and services?  Why in recent years have veterans launched four separate class action lawsuits against the federal government to try to get their issues resolved?  It boils down to this – the federal government’s programs and services for veterans and their families’ falls woefully short of meeting their needs.   Even though some improvements have been made in recent years, our federal government has not done enough.  When in Opposition, the Conservatives promised they would make significant veterans’ reforms including resolving the unfair reduction of veterans’ disability insurance payments called SISIP, extending the Veterans Independence Program for all widows, and holding a public inquiry and fully compensating all victims of Agent Orange.  The Conservatives also promised to stop appointing their friends to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and replace the Board with qualified members with a medical or military background.  Veterans are still waiting for action on all of these promises.

The federal government is now proposing to cut an estimated $226 million or more from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and eliminate 500 employees.   I am very concerned with how these cuts may impact on veterans’ health care programs and services especially since recent data shows demand for services is rapidly increasing for younger CF and RCMP veterans. Calls by the Royal Canadian Legion and National Council of Veterans Association to exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs from these cuts, like President Obama has done in theUnited States, have gone ignored. 

We have many examples of how the system of caring for our veterans is broken.  Like the ex-soldier who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was denied access to his psychologist because the Department of Veterans Affairs would not cover the hour long travel costs for the appointment.  Or the World War II veterans denied reimbursement for stair lifts to access the upper and lower levels of their homes as they are not considered essential living spaces.  And the veterans who are denied care at a veterans’ hospital because only those who served overseas in World War I, II, and Korea are eligible to apply. 

We are also very troubled by stories of veterans going on hunger strikes to get better care from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the widows of soldiers killed inAfghanistanbeing denied help at home under the Veterans Independence Program.   

Veterans’ homelessness is also on the rise and more veterans are using food banks. In the Prime Minister’s own city ofCalgary, volunteers have organized a food bank specifically for veterans and their families.  In 2005, it served 58 veterans and in 2010 it served over 200.

New Democrats have a number of recommendations to improve services including the development of new Veterans’ Health Care Centres of Excellence and more access to veterans’ hospitals, reforms to the New Veterans Charter, an increase for funeral expenses, action on veterans’ homelessness and a public inquiry into the Department’s breach of privacy with veterans’ medical records.  We continue to ask the government to end the claw back of retired and disabled CF and RCMP service pensions, extend the Veterans Independence Program to RCMP veterans, grant ‘marriage after 60’ pension and health benefits, provide better care for those suffering from PTSD, shorten wait-times for disability applications, extend vacation fairness for retired CF members, and eliminate or reform the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.  The NDP have many more ideas to improve veterans’ benefits and we advocate for a system that would evolve with the changing health care needs of veterans and expand access to programs and services.   

The federal government must do much more to provide better programs and services for veterans, RCMP members, and their families and ensure they are properly cared for from the moment they sign up to the moment they pass away. For these brave men and women, Remembrance Day is every day. Lest we forget.