Disabled veterans to get higher payments

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 21, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The substantial improvements to veterans benefits proposed Wednesday by the Conservative government aim to do more than aid those injured in body or mind while fighting in Afghanistan.

The new legislation offers a $2-billion solution to the complaints of aggrieved veterans of the Afghan conflict whose dissonance undermines Prime Minister Stephen Harper's claim to be the best friend the Canadian military has ever had.

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Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn revealed proposed legislative changes that would substantially improve payments to those seriously injured in the line of duty.

Those who could not work because of their injuries would receive a minimum of $40,000 a year in government support under proposed changes to the 2006 New Veterans Charter.

In addition, injured veterans who are receiving the lump-sum disability award may, if they prefer, receive it instead as an annual payment over as many years as they choose.

"They deserve nothing less, and our government is proud to deliver it," Mr. Blackburn declared at a press conference.

The proposed legislation earned qualified praise from the leaders of veterans groups.

"This is a good second chapter," to the original New Veterans Charter, which came into effect four years ago, said Brad White, Dominion Secretary for the Royal Canadian Legion, after the press conference. But "there is more that needs to be done,"

NDP MP Peter Stoffer, who has been a harsh critic of the Tory approach to meeting the needs of veterans, gave the legislation a grudging "C minus."

"At least they recognize there's a problem," he told reporters. But "they've only done the first step."

"The devil is in the details," said Liberal Veterans Affairs critic Kirsty Duncan in an interview. "There are many unanswered questions," especially about what help is available for veterans who are less than severely disabled.

For Mr. Stoffer and Mr. White, the next step would be increasing the maximum disability award payment from $276,000 to somewhere around $330,000, which Mr. White said is closer to the amount courts typically award to severely disabled workers.

The Finance Department has costed the proposed changes at $2-billion over the life of the programs. Veterans Affairs projected the changes as costing $200-million over the next five years. Because various benefit programs overlap, it's impossible to estimate how many will benefit; thus far Veterans Affairs Canada has assisted 2,900 veterans returning from Afghanistan.

Mr. Blackburn acknowledged that reforms would be ongoing, as were the Conservative government's efforts to reform the culture of obstructive red tape that many veterans complain is typical of the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy.

"It's true that we have to be more efficient with our veterans, especially those veterans who are coming back from Afghanistan," he acknowledged, adding that he was working to give front-line workers greater authority and responsibility in settling claims.

The improvements to veterans benefits, apart from being worthy in and of themselves, are also aimed at quelling a rebellion among the government's own supporters. Mr. Harper has championed funding for the military and, especially in his first years as Prime Minister, stoutly defended the mission in Afghanistan.

Complaints by veterans that were championed by former Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran - that the Conservatives were neglecting the need of those returning from that war - were deeply embarrassing to the Conservatives.

Mr. Blackburn and Mr. Harper doubtless hope that, with these improvements, those criticisms will be muted.