Canada’s new Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr aid he’ll drastically alter the way the feds treat veterans, giving them the benefit of the doubt instead of making them prove their need.
It’s an approach championed by both vets and their ombudsman Guy Parent as a badly needed fix for what they characterize as a dysfunctional system.
“I would agree with that approach,” Hehr said in an interview with Global News Tuesday.
“We need to take an approach that respects that men and women have served this great nation. If we’re going to err, lets err on the side of being supportive and understanding and delivering on our commitment to them when they signed up in our military.
“I’m looking forward having our staff implement that approach and get the people the services they need, and let the chips fall where they may and straighten it out after the fact, if necessary.”
As Veterans Affairs minister and associate minister of national defence, Hehr has his work cut out for him: He’s tasked with turning an institution accustomed to dealing with the needs of septuagenarians into a nimble organism capable of addressing the needs of tens of thousands of young soldiers.
And the most crucial, simple fixes are proving deceptively tricky.
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Ombudsman Guy Parent knows firsthand how tough it can be for soldiers to “reintegrate” into civilian life.
“I joined at 17 and retired at 55. I didn’t ‘reintegrate’ into the civilian world. I was never ‘integrated’ in the first place,” he said.
“It’s a challenge for healthy veterans. Imagine if, besides that, you’re suffering from either a psychological or a physical injury.”
Parent and his National Defence counterpart, Gary Walbourne, have spent the better part of a year attempting to reconcile the disparate practices and mandates of the two institutions that govern the lives of Canada’s military: National Defence and Veterans Affairs.
You’d think the two departments, having existed as bookends to the Canadian soldier’s life for decades, would work in symbiosis, but Parent says that’s not the case.
“All of a sudden, in front of them is a big black hole,” Parent said.
His goal is to “try to bring some hope to their transition to the civilian side.”
Parent and Walbourne are in the midst of a project to do that. “If we can offer a seamless transition, then people are prepared for it,” Parent said.
It starts with preparing people to leave the military from the second they enter it, he said, and tracking outcomes for people once they leave.
Right now, Canada has no systematic way of measuring how those people fare, and these metrics are key to success, according to Parent.
When the benefits are there, you just can’t reach them
Parent wants to make it easier for veterans to access benefits, breaking down a decades-old accretion of red tape. The result, he says, is an often insurmountable barrier to getting treatment or benefits people to which people may already be entitled.
“There are so many criteria you need to meet and the onus is always on the veteran and their families to prove themselves,” Parent said.
He says he wants to see veterans given the benefit of the doubt: Accepting their claims up front with an auditing process on the back end, similar to what the Canadian Revenue Agency does for taxes.
It’s deceptively simple but its impact could be revolutionary, Parent said.
And it would cut down on costs.
“We spend a lot of money on adjudication.”
All that said, Parent insists things have improved.
“I think the awareness, now, is certainly there,” he said.
“Afghanistan kind of opened the eyes of a lot of people.”
He admits there are still people hesitant to admit they need help — who may delay badly needed treatment for fear of ostracization, professional or personal repercussions.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to prevent that,” he said.
“It’s the culture of the military to be macho and not divulging any weakness that you may have.”