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Politics Veterans Affairs skipped normal consultations to introduce new Pensions for Life for disabled vets

Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont. on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Veterans Affairs is being accused of avoiding consultations with veterans after introducing details of its Pensions for Life program.

The new pension plan, which will take effect in April, 2019, will save the government money, at least in the short term, and reduce the compensation awarded to many disabled soldiers. During the first four years of the plan, Ottawa will pay about $1.8-billion less, in total, to disabled vets than it would have under programs enacted during the Harper government. And critics say it has gone to some lengths to prevent veterans from having input.

“It’s a systemic attack upon veterans’ rights to be denied the chance to participate in the very democracy that they were willing to die to defend,” says Sean Bruyea, a veterans-rights advocate who is suing Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan for defamation as a result of comments the minister made in response to Mr. Bruyea’s criticism of the plan.

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After taking office in 2015, the Liberal government created advisory groups of veterans to offer comment about new policies and laws affecting Canadians who have served in the military.

The government says a number of suggestions from the advisory groups were incorporated into Pensions For Life, but it did not ask the groups for feedback before announcing it in the days after Parliament broke for Christmas in 2017.

The legislation to enact the program was rolled into an omnibus budget bill in 2018. There was no discussion about it on the floor of the House of Commons, and very little at Commons committees.

Although there was an opening for public consultation in the spring of 2018 when the government announced its intention to publish regulations to put Pensions for Life into effect, there was no additional opportunity for comment after the regulations were released in September. At that point, veterans and other Canadians could see the details of what was actually being proposed.

That differs from the way the government normally does things, said Mr. Bruyea, a disabled vet who collects benefits under the Pension Act, the plan that predates the Harper government changes, and will not be affected by the new pension program.

For instance, public comment was allowed for 60 days after new regulations were introduced around air passenger protection, the legalization of cannabis, the disposal of hazardous waste, and the law governing electroplating and reverse etching.

The New Veterans Charter, which came into effect under the Conservatives in 2006, allowed a comment period after the proposed regulations were made public and before they were approved by cabinet.

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When asked why there was no opportunity for public input after the regulations were published to enact the Pensions For Life, the Veterans Affairs department told The Globe and Mail that there is no requirement to publish regulations for consultation before they are approved.

“Cabinet may exempt regulatory proposals from pre-publication on a case-by-case basis, and the specific rationale for exempting pre-publication is protected under cabinet confidence,” the department said in an e-mail.

The department also pointed out that Mr. O’Regan has been travelling the country to explain the Pensions For Life to veterans and their families, “to get their feedback, [and to] ensure their voices are heard and their questions answered ...”

The new pension plan is designed to replace the compensation plan in the New Veterans Charter that is based largely on a lump-sum payment.

In response to questions provided recently by The Globe, Veterans Affairs Canada rejected the suggestion that the new pensions will result in a cost savings. But the department also did not dispute that it will spend less money over the first four years.

Although the new pensions were meant to provide more equal levels of compensation, many individual retired members of the military who apply for benefits on or after April 1 will receive less than they would have if they had applied before that date. And they will receive much less than they would have under the old Pension Act − owing to the fact that the new program has eliminated some benefits and merged the rest into one monthly pension payment.

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The Veterans Affairs website highlights the example of a 25-year-old veteran named Lauren D. who is 100-per-cent disabled with amputations above the elbow and above the knee, and who also suffers from Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If Lauren lives to the age of 75, Veterans Affairs said in a recent e-mail that she would receive $690,000 in basic pain and suffering compensation through the new Pensions For Life plan, which is well more than the disability award of $360,000 that she would get under the current system.

Mr. Bruyea, on the other hand, says Lauren would get $1,590,000 over the course of her lifetime through the Pensions For Life Plan, but $2,500,328 if she applied for benefits before April 1. That is a difference of $910,328, created principally by the elimination of a career-impact allowance, which is one of the benefits that currently exists but will not under the Pensions for Life plan.

And the disparity is even greater between the new Pensions for Life and the old Pension Act, which would have paid her a total of $3,168,966. Veterans have been demanding the reinstatement of lifetime pensions that existed under the Pension Act.

“This is not what the Liberal government promised, it’s not what veterans were expecting,” Mr. Bruyea said, “and we are going to create a whole new generation of marginalized former soldiers.”

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