April 22, 2021 – The much-awaited 2021 federal budget was introduced by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on April 19, 2021.
Although there was not a great deal of attention given to veterans issues, the following budgetary proposals represent a number of positive developments in relation to veterans benefits and the operations of Veterans Affairs:
"Supporting our Veterans – Veterans are three to four times as likely to suffer from depressive or anxiety disorders, and over 15 times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), than the general population. Veterans are entitled to financial support for mental health care through the Treatment Benefit Program but they can wait up to two years to receive mental health care while waiting for their disability benefit application to be confirmed.
"Budget 2021 proposes to provide $140 million over five years starting in 2021-22, and $6 million ongoing, to Veterans Affairs Canada for a program that would cover the mental health-care costs of veterans with PTSD, depressive, or anxiety disorders while their disability benefit application is being processed."
Comment: As you will be aware, the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada (NCVA) and The War Amps, which is the leading force behind the NCVA, has strongly crusaded for a dramatic, systemic change to address the unacceptable backlog and wait times currently experienced by veterans in making disability claims to the department. Although this proposal does not comprehensively extend our concept of automatic entitlement/pre-approval, it does provide an extremely significant step forward in recognizing that treatment benefits should be granted immediately and not be dependent on the disability application process that can take up to two years. Thus, this provision is hopefully a springboard to expanding this principle so that veterans are not held in the lurch for many months and even years before health care/treatment benefits are available to them. The government has determined that mental health care (PTSD, depressive or anxiety disorders) should be given priority at this time. It will be our position that this should be extended to all physical disabilities so that veterans in serious need of health care or treatment benefits should be granted the same sense of priority. N.B.: We have prepared an op-ed piece for the Hill Times entitled "The VAC backlog requires a bold and creative solution" that will underline our concerns and recommendations in this context.
It is noteworthy that the actual budgetary accounts provide financial funding for Veterans Affairs Canada in the amount of approximately $28 million to extend disability adjudication resources provided in Budget 2018 for an additional year, and to develop more efficient disability benefits application and decision-making processes using digital technologies. We continue to urge VAC to take more creative and innovative steps to address the backlog/wait times dilemma. In our considered judgment, increasing staff resources and digital technology alone will not meaningfully alleviate this ongoing crisis impacting the disabled veterans' community.
The Veteran and Family Well-being Fund – As many veterans have faced unique challenges during the pandemic, the government is proposing in Budget 2021:
"…to provide an additional $15 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to Veterans Affairs Canada to expand and enhance the Veteran and Family Well-Being Fund for projects that will support veterans during the post COVID-19 recovery, including addressing homelessness, employment, retraining, and health challenges."
Towards a New Disability Benefit – It is not without significance that "the pandemic has exposed many of the long-standing challenges persons with disabilities face, including an increased risk of poverty. The Government of Canada has a number of programs and services in place that provide support to Canadians with disabilities but these are often complex and can be difficult to navigate for users. To ensure all persons with disabilities have the support they need to overcome persistent barriers to full economic and social participation, the government is committed to bringing forward a new disability benefit.
"Budget 2021 proposes to provide $11.9 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to Employment and Social Development Canada to undertake consultations to reform the eligibility process for federal disability programs and benefits. This will help maximize the reach of these programs and improve the lives of Canadians living with disabilities. This work would feed directly into the design of a new disability benefit.
"In preparation for legislation, the government will undertake extensive consultations with stakeholders on the design of the new benefit and engage with provinces and territories, which play a central role in providing support to many Canadians with disabilities. Employment and Social Development Canada will also establish a steering committee to oversee the development of this work, alongside the Canada Revenue Agency, the Department of Finance Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada."
Comment: This budgetary proposal was somewhat surprising and not totally clear as to its application to disabled veterans. It will be of interest as to how this potential new disability benefit will be integrated into veterans legislation, given the extensive disability programs that currently exist in the Pension Act/Veterans Well-being Act.
It will be our position that this provides an excellent opportunity to adopt our longstanding recommendation for a "one veteran – one standard" approach that would result in one pension/compensation/wellness model for all disabled veterans with parallel disabilities.
Many of the NCVA/Ministerial Policy Advisory Group recommendations also emphasize the expansion of the Income Replacement Benefit/Career Impact Allowance to cover future loss of income/the expansion of the Additional Pain and Suffering Compensation benefit and the addition of Exceptional Incapacity Allowance, Attendance Allowance and family benefits found under the Pension Act.
If the department is truly interested in creating a new disability benefit, we would be fully prepared to collaborate on providing recommendations to achieve this end for Canada's disabled veterans.
"Improving Access to the Disability Tax Credit – In 2017, the Government of Canada reinstated the Canada Revenue Agency's Disability Advisory Committee to ensure tax measures for persons with disabilities are administered in a fair, transparent and accessible way. Since the release of the committee's first annual report in 2019, the government has introduced many changes, including improvements to its communications and outreach activities for the Disability Tax Credit and changes to Registered Disability Savings Plans to better protect beneficiaries. As the government considers new recommendations from the committee, released in a second report on April 9, 2021, the government is proposing to take further steps to act on the guidance of the committee by improving the eligibility criteria for mental functions and life-sustaining therapy. To help more families and people living with disabilities access the Disability Tax Credit, and other related support measures like the Registered Disability Savings Plan and the Child Disability Benefit:
"Budget 2021 proposes to update the list of mental functions of everyday life that is used for assessment for the Disability Tax Credit. Using terms that are more clinically relevant would make it easier to be assessed, reduce delays, and improve access to benefits.
"Budget 2021 also proposes to recognize more activities in determining time spent on life-sustaining therapy and to reduce the minimum required frequency of therapy to qualify for the Disability Tax Credit. To ensure these changes enable applicants to have a fair and proper assessment of their eligibility for the Disability Tax Credit, the government will undertake a review of these changes in 2023.
"It is estimated that, as a result of these measures, an additional 45,000 people will qualify for the Disability Tax Credit, and related benefit programs linked to its eligibility, each year. This represents $376 million in additional support over five years, starting in 2021-22."
Comment: The expansion of the Disability Tax Credit program may prove to be beneficial to many disabled veterans who have failed to qualify up to this point in time as a consequence of the rather restrictive eligibility rules that have pertained to this particular tax credit.
We will keep an eye on the implementation of these budgetary proposals as applicable to the veterans' community.
"Ending Homelessness – COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the hardships faced by Canadians experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. Many have had to choose between the harsh cold of the streets or the risk of an outbreak in shelters."
It is the intention of the government through the budgetary document to now focus on attempting to eliminate chronic homelessness in Canada.
"Budget 2021 proposes to provide an additional $567 million over two years, beginning in 2022-23, to Employment and Social Development Canada for Reaching Home. This would maintain the 2021-22 funding levels announced in the Fall Economic Statement in response to the pressures of COVID-19.
"Every year, thousands of veterans access emergency shelters. After their service, every veteran deserves a home.
"Budget 2021 proposes to provide $45 million over two years, beginning in 2022-23, for Employment and Social Development Canada to pilot a program aimed at reducing veteran homelessness through the provision of rent supplements and wrap-around services for homeless veterans such as counselling, addiction treatment, and help finding a job."
Comment: We will hold the feet of the department to the fire in truly implementing programs that will address veteran homelessness across Canada, which has been identified as a significant crisis in many major cities and communities.
"Addressing Sexual Misconduct and Gender-based Violence in the Military" – In response:
"Budget 2021 proposes to provide $236.2 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, and $33.5 million per year ongoing to the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, including $158.5 million over 5 years and $29.9 million per year ongoing funded from existing resources to expand their work to eliminate sexual misconduct and gender-based violence in the military and support survivors. Specifically:
- "Enhance internal support services to victims, including access to free, independent legal advice and enabling military members to access services without making a formal complaint.
- "Expand an existing contribution program to support community-based sexual assault service providers outside major urban military centres, and increase the reach of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre that serves the Canadian Armed Forces to additional locations across Canada.
- "Pilot online and in-person peer support groups for Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans who experienced sexual misconduct during their service. These will be tailored to military experience.
- "Conduct research to inform targeted training and response frameworks, and engage external experts to support education and training to prevent sexual violence.
- "Implement new external oversight mechanisms to bring greater independence to the processes of reporting and adjudicating sexual misconduct within the military.
- "Undertake other initiatives to enhance institutional capacity to address harassment and violence, including enhancing the military justice system to better respond to allegations of misconduct and support survivors."
Comment: There is no question that this DND/CAF crisis deserves the highest priority, as empty platitudes and inadequate commitments have proven insufficient to rectify this abysmal embarrassment of leadership in the CAF/DND.
It is my intention to place this on our Legislative Program for 2021-22 and provide an update as to steps taken by the government to address this major concern within the Canadian military with specific reference to the protection of victims of this totally reprehensible sexual misconduct.
We will be holding further consultation meetings with the Minister, Deputy Minister and senior officials of the department over the course of the next few weeks which will give us a further opportunity to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the budget and the potential application of our major National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada (NCVA) and The War Amps recommendations so as to enhance these budgetary initiatives.
It must be kept in mind that budgetary proposals are only a first step in the legislative process. The implementation of these recommendations will need to be closely monitored to ensure the government carries through with these specific initiatives that are of benefit to Canadian veterans and their families.
With a pending election on the immediate horizon, this remains an excellent period of time to pursue the further implementation of major recommendations contained in our NCVA Legislative Program for 2020-21.
As I have stated on many occasions, the impact on the election vote of 700,000-odd veterans, together with additional family, friends and supporters, should not be lost on the federal political parties.
In conclusion, it must be stated that, although progress has potentially been achieved in a number of areas, given the massive financial expenditures delineated in this year's federal budget, it is indeed unfortunate that the government did not place a higher emphasis on addressing the long-standing inequities in veterans legislation which continue to exist.
I will keep you advised as to further developments.
All the best, and keep safe!
Chairman of the Executive Committee, The War Amps and
Chairman, National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada (NCVA)
It is noteworthy that the federal budget provides what it calls an "impact report" on the various recommendations made throughout the budget document. I have attached a number of these impact evaluations as an appendix to this report so as to provide an overview from the government's perspective of its objectives in the various proposals relevant to the veterans' community.
Direct beneficiaries of this initiative are veterans with mental or physical health issues. Veterans are more likely than the Canadian general population to experience activity limitations and suffer from a range of health issues. Hearing loss and tinnitus are the two most common conditions for which veterans receive disability benefits, followed by post-traumatic stress disorder. Since men account for the majority of veterans, more men are expected to benefit from this initiative. However, this enabling investment will allow Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to continue its efforts to reduce wait times for disability benefits applications for all veterans.
Government investments in homelessness will directly benefit Canadians experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Economic downturns, such as the one caused by COVID-19, increase the risk of homelessness.
Homelessness affects a diverse population, though certain groups are overrepresented. In 2017:
Veterans are more likely than average to experience chronic homelessness.
As many as 85 per cent of people experiencing homelessness report a chronic health condition. By helping vulnerable people find housing, this measure will improve physical and mental health outcomes.
Veterans are three to four times as likely to suffer from depressive or anxiety disorders, and more than 15 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), than Canadians of comparable age and sex. Female veterans are more likely than male veterans to experience depression (35 per cent vs. 24 per cent) and anxiety (25 per cent vs. 21 per cent), but slightly less likely than males to report having PTSD (22 per cent vs. 24 per cent). In Canada, the estimated veteran population is 629,300, of which about 119,000 are clients of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). Approximately 12 per cent of VAC clients are women. Since members of the Canadian Armed Forces are predominantly men, more men are expected to benefit from this initiative.
This initiative targets veterans and their immediate families. Since members of the Canadian Armed Forces are predominantly men, more men are expected to benefit from this initiative. However, this measure supports projects tailored to improve the well-being of all veterans and their families, including veterans who are women, LGBTQ2, Indigenous, or experience homelessness. There are currently around 3,000 homeless veterans in Canada. Veterans are more likely than the Canadian general population to experience activity limitations and suffer from a range of health issues. Many veterans also face challenges transitioning from military to civilian life. Employment rates amongst veterans is lower than for Canadians of similar age and sex (60 per cent vs 73 per cent). Amongst veterans, women and recently released veterans are less likely to be employed.
The Canadian Digital Service (CDS) directly benefits Canadians and all other users of government on-line services. The CDS focuses on services that achieve high standards of accessibility and on meeting the needs of diverse populations, such as veterans, businesses seeking to respond to government tenders, and those applying for COVID-19 economic relief measures. In particular, the CDS focuses on those who might be otherwise underserved or marginalized. Recent work of the CDS has included development of the COVID Alert App, and GC Notify, a platform to provide vital email and text messaging services for an array of COVID-19 services.
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