Veterans Affairs minister promises change, but says new charter is here to stay
Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole is thanking a veteran who lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan for publicly sharing his story about his struggles trying to receive benefits and support from the government.
O'Toole told CTV's Canada AM that retired Master Cpl. Paul Franklin's story is important, because it points to larger challenges that need to be addressed at Veterans Affairs Canada.
"If he's raising an issue where Veterans Affairs hasn't dealt with him in a way that's respectful or responsive, it's not just him, there would be other people out there like this," O'Toole said. "So I think we can learn from Paul's situation."
Franklin lost both his legs in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2006. After his injury, he said he had no trouble receiving help from the Department of National Defence. But he began to run into problems when he chose to retire.
He says that every year he has to prove to Veterans Affairs that he still qualifies for home care services and income replacement because of his disability. He said he has had his wheelchair taken away from him twice, because of disagreements over which department should pay for it and which doctor's notes were required.
"Every year, there are annual assessments that are done through (the insurance agency) and through Veterans Affairs in which you actually prove your condition. And unfortunately for me, I have to prove that I still have no legs, every year," he said.
Franklin is calling on the minister to scrap the New Veterans Charter, which ended the monthly pension for disabled veterans in favour of a lump-sum payment.
Minister acknowledges 'gaps' in new charter
Responding to Franklin's concerns, O'Toole said that while the government is committed to addressing some of the gaps identified in the charter, it will not be abandoning it.
"The all party committee that looked at this last year, the NDP, the Liberals, everyone agreed when the 50 plus witnesses were listened to, it is the way to go," he said.
"The New Veterans Charter overall is good, but there's some gaps that were not intended when it was brought in. Some of those need to be addressed."
O'Toole recently created a progress report card, by which veterans groups can track the government's progress on addressing issues stemming from the new charter.
The minister said the charter focuses on quickly providing medical support and employment training to veterans, which is especially beneficial for soldiers who are required to leave the military early due to a medical issue.
"The key thing for a veteran when they leave the military is they have to have health, they have to have family and happiness, and they have to have career," he said. "The ones that have serious injuries that won't be able to have that career, we need to address that quickly."
He also said that the charter focuses on providing transitional support to veterans, so that they can establish themselves in a new civilian career.
"We have transitional support quickly. That was the focus of the New Veterans Charter," he said. "Some of the gaps that the ombudsman and others have identified are where we have to fix things."
In 2013, the veterans ombudsman released a report comparing the new charter, enacted in 2006, with the old system of compensating veterans under the Pension Act.
The report found that hundreds of the most severely disabled veterans will take a financial hit after they turn 65 because they do not have military pensions and some of their charter benefits will end.
The charter is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit between the government and seven disabled veterans, who argue that the new compensation rules imposed by the charter violate their constitutional and Charter rights.
O'Toole said that as the government makes changes to the new charter, it welcomes input and dialogue with vets like Franklin.
The minister, who represents the riding of Durham, Ont. and is a former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was appointed to the Veterans Affairs file after the previous minister Julian Fantino was demoted to a junior cabinet role in early January.
During his time as minister, Fantino faced harsh criticism as the Department of Veterans Affairs implemented job cuts and closed several Veterans Affairs offices across the country.
Last November, it was revealed that Veterans Affairs Canada had returned $1.13 billion to the federal treasury in unspent funds – cash critics say should have gone to improving benefits and services.