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Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says his department has fulfilled the party’s mandate to increase benefits to 90 per cent of a veteran’s pre-release salary but he did not address the difference in increase for lower and higher ranks.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Canada's Veterans Affairs Minister is defending his decision to increase an income-replacement benefit for permanently disabled veterans by a small amount for those who make the least, but as much as 20 per cent for the higher ranks, saying all who qualify will make more than 90 per cent of their pre-release salary.

But veterans' rights advocates point out that the proposed increase to the Earnings Loss Benefit will still be applied unequally, to the detriment of those seriously injured former members of the Canadian Armed Forces who were at the low end of the pay scale or who were discharged decades ago, before military salaries climbed.

They argue that any attempt to replace the income of veterans who are so disabled that they can no longer work should take into account what those soldiers would have received had they not had to leave the military.

The Liberals included the proposed increases to the Earnings Loss Benefit, which is paid until a veteran turns 65, in the March budget. The changes are to take effect in October.

New Democrats asked during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons on Tuesday why the government is providing those who receive more under the benefit with bigger increases than those who receive less.

"In budget 2016, we fulfilled our mandate commitment to increase Earnings Loss Benefits to 90 per cent of a veteran's pre-release salary, up from 75 per cent," replied Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr. "That's exactly what we did ..."

He did not specifically address the difference in the increases for the lower and higher ranks.

Some disabled veterans have been making more than 75 per cent of their pre-release salary through the Earnings Loss Benefit because those salaries were so low that the previous government acknowledged the veterans were not getting enough to meet even their basic needs. To rectify that, the Conservatives said in 2011 that said no one who is entitled to the benefit would receive less than $40,000 annually, which was then 75 per cent of the salary of a basic corporal.

Although the Liberal government is now increasing the Earnings Loss Benefit to 90 per cent of a soldier's pre-discharge wage, it is also reducing the base for the minimum they can receive to the amount earned by a senior private, even for those who were discharged at ranks that were much higher.

The end result is that those whose benefits rose under the Conservatives will get only small increases when the changes take effect in October. They include those who were injured in places such as Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia and who were discharged before the government approved significant military raises in the late 1990s and over the past decade.

Meanwhile, those former members of the Armed Forces who were discharged at salaries higher than the $49,449 that is currently paid to a senior private – majors, colonels, generals and even high-ranking non-commissioned officers – will not be affected by a rank change and could see their benefits rise by tens of thousands of dollars.

Brian Forbes, the chairman of the National Council of Veterans Associations, said the biggest problem with the Earnings Loss Benefit is that it does not account for the fact that a soldier's income would have naturally increased over time had he or she remained in the military to receive promotions and raises.

"The benchmark should be what is the projected loss of income," Mr. Forbes said. "It should be projected over the career that the individual would have had if he hadn't been injured."

In the recent budget, the government changed the name of the Permanent Impairment Allowance, a benefit that is also paid to some severely injured soldiers to compensate for loss of employment potential and career advancement opportunities, to the Career Impact Allowance. But that benefit has been poorly defined, Mr. Forbes said, and because of strict criteria, it has previously been unavailable to large numbers of Canada's most disabled veterans.

The bottom line is that the amounts paid to those former members of the military who are so disabled they can no longer work must be augmented, Mr. Forbes said. "Because you can't take a young private at 25 and keep paying him at the salary he made at 25 for the rest of his life."

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