The man responsible for ensuring that members of Canada's military are treated fairly is proposing significant changes to the way soldiers, sailors and aviators are released into civilian life – measures that could bridge the divide between National Defence and Veterans Affairs.
Gary Walbourne, the Defence Ombudsman, will release a new report Tuesday that says no member of the Canadian Armed Forces should be given a medical discharge before all of the member's post-military financial supports are in place.
Mr. Walbourne's prescription is aimed at solving a problem that has been recognized by successive federal governments. When service-related injuries render military personnel unfit for deployment, it can be months before they start to receive the money that will replace their lost salaries.
"What I am asking the Canadian Armed Forces to do is not to release any member medically until all benefits and services from all sources have been put into place," Mr. Walbourne said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. "Will it put some pressure on the system? Probably. But it will also start to force some performance."
Mr. Walbourne wants the Defence department to maintain its members on its payroll until all of the pension plan documents have been signed and the first cheque is set to be mailed. He also wants to ensure that no injured soldier is cut loose before the full suite of benefits offered under the New Veterans Charter, including the Permanent Impairment Allowance, the Earnings Loss Benefit, and educational assistance have been processed.
The mandate letter given to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Mr. Sajjan must work closely with Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr to ensure "a seamless transition" for Canadian Forces members to the programs and services of Veterans Affairs.
One of the obstacles, Mr. Walbourne said, is that even though Defence knows how and where an injury occurred, has control of a soldier's health files and treats soldiers medically until the day they take off their uniform for the final time, it is the Veterans Affairs Department that decides whether an injury is service-related. That can take up to 16 weeks – the service standard at Veterans Affairs – and, until it is settled, veterans do not know what level of financial support they will receive, or whether they will receive anything at all.
In his report, Mr. Walbourne reiterates a proposal he made last May to move the responsibility for determining attribution of service from Veterans Affairs to Defence. It is a shift that he says will cut the waiting time for a decision in half.
Mr. Sajjan did not receive that suggestion with much enthusiasm.
In a letter to the ombudsman, he said the Canadian Armed Forces "has no extant statutory or policy mandate to systematically determine if an illness developed or an injury sustained during a member's career is related to their military service."
But Mr. Walbourse argues that it is just a matter of changing some bureaucratic conventions. If no policy is in place to allow the Defence department to determine whether an injury is service-related, he said, then create one.
The ombudsman also argues in favour of a "concierge service," which is in place in the United States. It gives every veteran a single point of contact to deal with every issue – instead of being shuffled between Veterans Affairs, Defence and representatives of the government's insurance plan.
"What we're proposing are some opportunities for the government to really take a process that is complex and convoluted and put some sensibility to it, some common sense to make it more streamlined and much more easy," Mr. Walbourne said. "The government has said that veterans are important, certainly members are important, and it's time to make a fundamental shift."