OTTAWA—Making sure wounded ex-soldiers—most notably amputees—don’t have to repeatedly verify their injuries to retain their benefits is proving much easier said than done for Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole.
The practice is a bureaucratic imperative that crosses department lines and has required O’Toole to enlist the support of Defence Minister Jason Kenney, several government sources say.
Former master corporal Paul Franklin, wounded in Kandahar, set off a political firestorm last month when he complained about having to repeatedly confirm the loss of both of his legs in order keep receiving benefits.
Franklin blamed Veterans Affairs; O’Toole responded publicly by saying he’d told his officials to ensure the practice never takes place.
Last week, the department announced it had established a task force to comb through forms it uses to communicate with ex-soldiers to ensure every bit of the paper trail is necessary. The task force will also evaluate whether renewals are appropriate for all veterans, particularly those with obvious permanent disabilities.
It also previously announced renewals under its assisted living plan, known as the veterans independence program, would go from one year to three years.
But advocates and opposition critics say the minister’s assurances are negated by the fact the problem lies not with Veterans Affairs, but with the long-term disability plan at National Defence—beyond O’Toole’s jurisdiction.
It is the Canadian Forces service income security insurance plan, or SISIP—a long-term disability plan that requires medically released soldiers to submit to a medical review to determine whether they are eligible for continued benefits, even in cases where the soldier has been deemed “totally disabled.”
That program is delivered through the insurance company Manulife, and removing the requirement won’t be easy.
The online policy guide tells wounded soldiers that during the two years following their release, they are subject to medical reviews at “12 and 18 months to determine your eligibility for continued benefits” and that support may continue as long as they qualify as “totally disabled.”
The legislation appears to leave follow-on reviews to the discretion of the policyholder, which in this case is the chief of the defence staff. Veterans advocate Sean Bruyea says that suggests the fix ought not to be difficult.
O’Toole has asked for a meeting with the head of the Manulife program, said one government source who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The issue is a political landmine for the Conservatives, who’ve made rebuilding burned bridges with veterans a priority before the next election.
Politically, the optics of the controversy have been awful.
Asking soldiers without limbs to repeatedly verify their injuries as part of a standard medical review has made the government look foolish and heartless, said NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer.
“The reality is you’ve got at least four different agencies involved and saying different things,” Stoffer said in a recent interview.
“The minister was quick to declare this fixed. It’s not fixed and it’s going to take some work. Nothing is stopping the minister from tapping (Defence Minister) Jason Kenney on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, we have a problem here.”‘
A spokesman for O’Toole was asked several times over the last week about the SISIP issue, and declined comment.
Bruyea said every veteran cringes when they see the brown Veterans Affairs envelope—or the white SISIP envelope—in the mail.
He said the government is in such a hurry to stamp out fires that it’s resorting to “empty, baseless rhetoric” and it needs to deliver on the promised fixes.
“There is a growing, vocal portion of the veterans community—I would say predominantly ones affected by these programs—that know the difference between rhetoric and reality,” he said.
“Their whole effort here could backfire well beyond the veterans community.”