What's going on at Veterans Affairs? - Macleans.ca
 

What’s going on at Veterans Affairs?

Seriously though, shouldn’t we be able to answer that question?


 

Julian Fantino

When I was preparing to write this piece, I emailed a few questions to the office of Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, a member of the Veterans Affairs committee.

Does he, as a member of the veterans affairs committee, think he has a good understanding of what positions have been eliminated at Veterans Affairs, what spending has been reduced as a result of the government’s deficit elimination efforts and what the expected impact of those changes will be? If so, on what basis does he have that understanding? If not, shouldn’t he?​

As he pointed out to me: Hawn has only been a member of the committee for the last year. But here are his responses, complete and unedited.

The positions to which you refer were eliminated over a long period of time, since 2008. Even though I have had a lifelong interest in veterans affairs, I have been on the Veterans Affairs committee for slightly more than one year. I do not, nor does any member of any committee, have detailed knowledge of every position in any department. That is not our job and we all have a variety of responsibilities in several areas. We trust the professional bureaucracy of departments to manage their departments through their ministers and deputy ministers. That performance gets reported on and evaluated by appearance at committee, auditor general reports, etc. We do have knowledge of programs and overall direction of departmental affairs, and are free to dig deeper as we see fit. In my case, that knowledge comes from personal interest as a veteran and one who is committed to progress on veterans issues. It also comes from my membership on the cabinet committee that was tasked with deliberating the Deficit Reduction Action Plan. In that process, Veterans Affairs took the smallest cut of any department with the exception of Aboriginal Affairs. As you should know, VAC budgets have continued to increase over the years. Any cutbacks in certain areas at Veterans Affairs were aimed squarely at reducing duplication, reduction of red tape, updating and streamlining administration services; and that’s where the vast majority of cuts were accomplished. All of this was to concentrate to the maximum extent possible on the actual delivery of services and benefits. The opposition will, of course, mislead Canadians for their own political objectives. The media will, of course, willingly participate in anything that can be construed as negative.

The opposition are misrepresenting the numbers, by cherry-picking and refusing to acknowledge the broader picture, even though I’m pretty sure that they’re smart enough to understand it. As has been pointed out in the House, there are admin services in every department within VAC and all have been targets for reduction, where it does not impact service delivery. Do we get all those 100 per cent right? Of course not; but that is not indicative of any intention to neglect our responsibilities to veterans. It is an indication of something that will always be a work in progress. Here are some of the examples of targeted cuts. In the Disability Benefit program, 12 photocopy and processing clerks were reduced when we moved to digitized medical records. In the service delivery branch, re-organization of three regional management centres into one in Montreal reduced hundreds of managers, processing analyst and administrative support clerks. In the Treatment Benefits program (which supports disability benefits and rehab programs), 30 positions were reduced when we streamlined health-related travel claims and eliminated the need to submit individual receipts to the government. In the Disability Benefit, service delivery and rehabilitation areas of the department, we reduced 24 managerial positions by reorganizing the department’s management structure. In the Veterans Independence program, we eliminated the need to submit receipts and went to an up-front payment, saving dozens of positions.

I’m pretty sure that you’ll spin all of this as negative, and I can’t control that. I can only try to be the two things I wanted to be when I started this job – honest and consistent. I have always acknowledged the legitimate challenges on veterans’ issues and have lobbied strongly and consistently for rational progress. I can also only remain disappointed at the state of politics and the media in Canada; and there is blame to go all around.

The first sentence of that third paragraph kind of hurt my feelings. (I kid. I genuinely appreciate Hawn’s response. For the record, I’m just here because I desire a meaningful debate.)

I’m told that Hawn’s information on positions that have been eliminated comes courtesy of Veterans Affairs officials. But Veterans Affairs still has not responded to my request for a full accounting of the staff reductions. (While Julian Fantino continues to claim in the House of Commons that the opposition parties have voted against specific initiatives and investments to assist veterans, his office continues to not respond to my requests to explain the minister’s claims.)

Regardless of whether or not anyone ever responds to me, staffing in a federal department does not seem the sort of thing that Parliament should be haggling over in the abstract. Shouldn’t we have a relatively straightforward basis for debate—an official explanation of which positions were eliminated and why and with what adjustments? Isn’t this what Parliament is for? Does the confusion here not suggest a systemic failure? (When I asked Liberal MP Frank Valeriote, another member of the Veterans Affairs committee, about why MPs haven’t already gotten to the bottom of this issue, he pointed to the limited time allowed for opposition MPs to question the minister at committee hearings. He also pointed, fairly, to the fact that neither the minister nor government officials appeared before the committee this fall to discuss the government’s latest request for funding. The estimates process is already insufficient. To not even bother holding a single hearing is to fail to do the absolute least you could do.)

A union official tells the Globe that the cuts at Veterans Affairs are having an impact and raises the specific issue of the caseloads that staff are carrying.

Mr. Gannon, a former front-line service provider with Veterans Affairs, said the roughly 1,000 job cuts in the department are having a dramatic impact on front-line services for veterans. Case managers should have between 35 and 41 client cases but he said many are dealing with more than 50 individual veterans’ files.

“The veterans themselves are the ones that are suffering,” he said. “We are so short-staffed right now on the front lines that it’s actually kind of disgusting when it really comes down to it.”

The Chronicle-Herald‘s Paul McLeod reported last week that he had inquired about caseloads without receiving a response from the department.

In my flipping through departmental reports earlier this week, I noticed that the department’s 2013-14 report on plans and priorities included a section on the Veterans Affairs workforce that broadly covered potential reductions, but while setting out a target for caseloads.

Along with other government of Canada departments, VAC has completed a strategic operating review, enabling it to realize savings through operational efficiencies. The department will strive to eliminate unnecessary steps and layers of bureaucracy, in order to deliver better and faster service. These reductions, combined with the department’s ongoing transformation, which began in 2010, will be managed through attrition: approximately 1,000 VAC employees (almost a third of its workforce) were or/are eligible to retire between 2010 and 2016. Other strategies will include the internal redeployment of staff resources, and workforce adjustment as necessary.

Notably, there will be no reduction in services to veterans, in particular, the department’s case management services, which provide care and support to the veterans in greatest need. VAC will continue to improve these services, while striving to balance workloads for case managers. The department will maintain a ratio of one case manager for every 40 case managed veterans.

So there is something that should be knowable: how many cases have managers been carrying over the last two years? How often have managers had more than 40 cases at a time? For that matter, is 40 cases per manager a demonstrably good ratio?

The House will adjourn for its winter break this afternoon. It is due to be adjourned for six weeks. And it would be sometime after that the Veterans Affairs committee would conceivably reconvene to pursue the questions about staffing, caseloads and mental health services that have dominated the last two weeks. As a simple measure of democratic governance, that seems rather unsatisfactory, no?


 

What’s going on at Veterans Affairs?

  1. Well, I do hope that many Vets (and the Canadian public too!) have come to realize that military symbols are used by this government to boost its own image. Canadians shouldn’t be fooled any more (considering Harper counts on people NOT being informed).
    The Conservatives want TO BE SEEN as supporting the military.
    But in practice, it’s another reality: severe cuts in staff and office closures have affected Vets.
    So yes, the ‘Harper Government’ loves the military because it gets them the Tim Horton-sipping and Legion member-votes (as they spend millions $ on ads). But Vets become a problem when they need help and it costs the government money.
    Now, VAC is scrambling, rehiring and Fantino goes on his letter-writing campaign in an effort to do damage control.

  2. There is one question asked in this piece and that is why Fantino states that the opposition has voted against increased benefits etc for veterans. The answer is quite simple, and another Harper dirty politics trick; any of those pieces of legislation that is aimed at improving benefits for veterans is ALWAYS INCLUDED AS PART OF AN OMNIBILL. Therefore, it is included with things that the opposition state should be debated separately and thus vote against it. Harper always promised when in opposition that omnibills were unfair and undemocratic and would never use them if he were in power. Lo and behold, he gets in power and then uses them and his majority to pass pieces of legislation that pisses just about everyone off along with a little something for veterans. When the opposition vote against the part they really do not like, then the CONS pounce on it to accuse them of not supporting veterans. I hope many, many Canadians finally get the message about this government and removes them from power in 2015. This is the same government remember, that clawed back disability pensions from SISIP and ELB/WVA payments and then refused to pay those vets back who collect the ELB/WVA (unlike those on SISIP) because” the courts never imposed anything on them”. Is that fair????

  3. Canadians are FINALLY getting to know the ‘mirage’ of CONServative politicians.
    The true measure of any persons worth is not what they SAY they believe in or will do BUT what actions they take to support those beliefs.
    The veterans have joined the environment and western farmers in that CONServative ideological march to economic prosperity…….people, it is time to save yourselves and leave this toxic relationship….VOTE 2015.

  4. There is a lot of negativity, possibly politically motivated in the three early comments. I don’t know what the experience of UN, Bosnian, and Afghanistan vets is, but as a Korean vet i have experienced only positive things during this administration.
    1. I am nearing 87 with many non-VAC funded health deficits in addition to active service related problems. I live at a distance from the nearest VAC office – about a five hour drive. Anywhere at a distance I go I must I have an accompanying attendant who is usually my wife, herself on in years. So I can’t see much of a problem where the office is: there is mail, telephone. email and I have never had a problem with effective communication.
    2. I am sure a lot of jobs were eliminated in the VAC payments office in Charlottetown. The previous procedure was a line-item listing of payments made for service (e.g. yard maintenance, snow clearance, window washing and so on. Imagine the number of clerks required to process thousands if not tens of thousands of individual submissions, plus the delay in reimbursement. Now VAC issues two semi annual; grants based on previous claim experience. This must have meant a really big efficiency that was sensible and overdue. If VAC can’t generally trust the country’s vets to be honest, then we have much bigger problems than what are quoted. . Other claims which are larger are dealt with the old way.
    3. I have NEVER had a problem with adjudication of of my status. The process is clear and reasonable.

    While I understand there is some disagreement with my views in regard to those with PTSD and there was considerable stress over one officer’s confidential file being exposed, I think that is probably due to the bureaucracy in Chalottettown that needed bucking up.

    4. On politics, it was the Liberal Administration that held up approval of my dependency for years and it was the current administration that got off its rear end and finally approved my case and need, So go figure!

  5. One fact that I omitted from my post yesterday is the question of budget surpluses. VAC allow for greater variances of budget vs expenditure than many departments estimates because the majority of their expense is for men and women who age and die. Most of the veterans of War Ii have died off, specifically in the time period 2006-2014. Most of those vets still living are from 90 to 94 years old and at those ages they will soon be gone, hence a surplus over what might have been spent. The Korean and Suez vets are in their 80s now and many have already died. While there is a certain amount of that demography can be estimated by probability, there can still be holes large enough to account for some annual surpluses – and it is the law of the land that the surplus must be returned to the Treasury at the end of March. So I don’t see where very many vets have been denied service because of those surpluses. The problem with PTSD (once called “battle fatigue” and earlier than that, “shell shock”) must be that it is very hard to diagnose as a genuine condition as opposed to a put-on, although I think the benefit of the doubt may not be given to the vet as it should.

    I think it is reprehensible that the opposition parties are playing dirty politics with this issue. How many of them are vets themselves?

    And finally, it is sad that Minister Fantini himself isn’t able to explicate these points.