Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Case to Merge VAC and DND

By: Ryan Olshansky, CDA Institute 

CDA Institute Analyst Ryan Olshansky makes the case to merge Veteran Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence.

Transition has been an ongoing issue for veterans who have to deal with both the Department of National Defence (DND) and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). Our sacred obligation to veterans requires seamless transition to civilian life. Yet, with the rocky transition between VAC and DND remaining rampant, I suggest veterans would be better served if the two departments merged.

Veterans who begin their transition to civilian life jump through several hurdles to receive the benefits and services to which they are entitled. Once they are released by the military, veterans participate in a transition interview with VAC, where all the requirements for benefits and services are made clear. Responsibility is put on the veteran to collect the necessary medical records and to submit them alongside a completed application form. Given the sheer volume of applications, and the fact that many applications are incomplete or are missing records, decisions often take a few months.

Admittedly, VAC has made improvements to transition over the past couple of years. For example, VAC recently hired 101 more staff in disability benefits processing to support veterans with applications and to render decisions more quickly. Budget 2016 provided $78.1 million over five years to hire more case managers. VAC also recently created MyVAC Account, an online portal in which veterans can apply for benefits and services and track their applications online in the comfort of their own homes. Indeed, ever since the Auditor General issued a report in 2014 that said the Disability Benefits Program is “slow, and the application process is complex,” the Department has made tangible efforts to make transition easier and less stressful.

But these solutions still ignore a fundamental problem: silos between departments. Interdepartmental client-​exchange has proven to be a thorn in the side of veterans and the government alike. It has compromised standards of care, compounded wait times and added additional stress to veterans.

I do not think we should be surprised that standalone veterans’ affairs departments are mired in controversy around the world. Obviously, VAC has dealt with a number of issues the past few years. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has been under intense scrutiny for long wait times. While the reasons are obviously multifold, it is clear that the transition of mentally and physically debilitated veterans into separate departments is difficult. The French government has paved a different path, where veterans’ affairs is administered by the Ministry of Defense. In France, the Minister of Defence is advised on veterans’ affairs policy by the Secretary of State for War Veterans. The Secretary of State is held to account politically, and French veterans enjoy the benefits of tightly integrated military and post-​military administrations.

One way to reduce these silos in Canada is to have an interdepartmental committee that standardizes and synthesizes all health-​related policies, processes and IT programs between VAC and DND. This would be a huge undertaking at which successive governments have not proven to be very good. A simpler way to deal with these silos is to eliminate them altogether and merge the two departments. Former Senator and retired general Romeo Dallaire posited in the Senate Committee on National Defence that VAC should be absorbed as a sub-​department in DND and be represented by an associate minister. He has a point. One soldier served under a single roof for their entire life makes eminent sense. A move to DND would simplify the points of contact for veterans and it would consolidate service providers. Veterans would get access to all health and wellness services offered to serving members. A merger would also benefit serving members; a single department with the goal of equality for all soldiers and veterans has the mandate to do away with the outdated policy of excluding many modern-​day veterans from guaranteed beds in long-​term care facilities.

Most importantly, it would provide for near immediate information sharing and consistent decisions. A medically released soldier would straightaway qualify for benefits that are equal to the injury that caused their release. Too many times a soldier is medically released from the military with a seriously debilitating injury – let’s say 70 percent, only to discover that it was measured by VAC at a lesser mark – maybe 35 percent. How is that fair? A merged department would be able to use consistent calculations when deciding benefits.

VAC’s mandate also includes commemoration, but they exercise that mandate in conjunction with DND and Heritage Canada, both of which are capable of growing their departments to celebrate veterans and historic battles, especially since VAC’s budget last year allocated less than one percent to commemoration.

There would be pushback from VAC staff located in Charlottetown; a move to National Defence or a separate merged department would require a good many to relocate to Ottawa. This is why a VAC-​DND merger will require a dose of good faith and political will, both of which the current government has in spades. It is not coincidental that Prime Minister Trudeau made the dual appointment of Minister Hehr to VAC and DND to deal with transition. To the Prime Minister’s credit, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.

Minister Hehr would be wise to heed the advice of General Dallaire, and if this government isn’t bold enough to swallow the pill and face internal backlash from public officials at VAC, then cries about the treatment of our veterans will amount to nothing more than crocodile tears.
Ryan Olshansky is a former advisor to the Veterans Affairs Minister and the Associate Defence Minister. He recently graduated from Carleton University and is an Analyst at the CDA Institute. (Image courtesy of Justin Tang/​Canadian Press.)