Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Christmas Full of Pensions For Life?

Murray Brewster of CBC News reports, Ottawa pouring an extra $3.6B into veterans' benefits:
The Liberal government today initiated an intricate overhaul of the system to compensate wounded ex-soldiers, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to placate a volatile community of Canadian veterans.

The plan, rolled out by Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan, is meant to address smouldering grievances among veterans that has led to protests and at one point spawned a class-action lawsuit.

As CBC News reported last week, the changes involve a two-part rejigging of the current system. Officials outlined how that would work on Wednesday and announced there will be an injection of fresh cash beginning on April 1, 2019. O'Regan said it will take time to introduce the required legislation.

Speaking on background before the announcement, officials estimated the changes would mean an extra $3.6 billion being poured into veterans benefits.

"We are delivering a package of benefits and supports, and financial security for those who need it," O'Regan said.

"I hope they believe we fought hard for them."

At issue is a tax-free lump sum payment, brought in a dozen years ago, to replace a system of pensions for pain and suffering injuries.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised in the last election to give veterans an "option" of taking the lump sum or a lifetime pension.

What the federal government is introducing Wednesday is a patchwork allowing veterans to take either the lump sum or a lifetime pension, which would deliver a maximum tax-free payment of $1,150 per month.

In addition, the Liberals will introduce another tax-free pain and suffering award on top of the existing one. It too will come in either lump sum or pension form that would give wounded veterans up to $1,500 per month, depending on their level of disability.

'Not everyone will receive the maximum award'

The second component involves a bundling of six existing income-replacement benefits — already available under the often-maligned New Veterans Charter — into one payment.

The new income replacement benefit will be taxable and it is meant for those "who are experiencing barriers to re-establishment due to a health problem resulting" from their service.

Significantly, it will be available to veterans, survivors for life, and orphans, should they need it.

The part of the plan that will draw the most scrutiny and perhaps political fire is the pain and suffering awards.

O'Regan was clear that "not everyone will receive the maximum award."

Under the current lump sum system, the maximum payout is $360,000, but documents obtained by CBC News under access to information show the average award is $43,000.

Translated to a pension, that means few wounded soldiers would ever see the entire $1,150 per month. Under the old pension act, the most severely wounded soldiers would have received up to $2,700 per month.

The Liberal government has long said its changes "would not seek parity" with the previous system, but officials emphasize that when the two tax-free benefits are combined, that would only mean a difference of $50 per month.

Officials said only about 12 per cent of veterans will be eligible for the maximum amount.

O'Regan said he can't guarantee that the average veteran will receive the same or more compared to the old pension act.

"No, I cannot guarantee that. Each will be individually assessed," he said. But "any veteran receiving funding under the New Veterans' Charter will not be receiving less under this. In almost every circumstance they will be receiving more."

Before Wednesday's announcement, some ex-soldiers were clear on what their litmus test for success is: more money in their pockets.

"The bar the government has to meet is parity with the pension act in terms of the net dollars in a veteran's pocket every month," said retired major Mark Campbell, who lost both legs in a blast in a booby-trapped ditch in Afghanistan.

"It can only be a real pension if the benefits are tax free and if there is no clawback of their military pension as part of the disability payment."

Veterans Affairs officials used a bevy of charts and hypothetical scenarios Wednesday to demonstrate that combining all elements of the plan — both tax-free and taxable benefits — most soldiers would be better off financially.

Sean Bruyea, a veterans advocate, said it is unclear how the changes will affect average veterans given the complexity of the changes.

"This is going to create a nightmare of anxiety among veterans who are going to wonder whether their lives are going to be made any better — or worse," he said.

O'Regan took pains to emphasize that the government will use the coming months, before the changes come into effect, to work with individuals to reassure them.
And Lee Berthiaume of the Canadian Press also reports, Confusion, frustration greet Liberals' pension plan for disabled veterans:
The Trudeau government’s long-awaited plan to provide lifelong disability pensions to veterans has been met with confusion and frustration from many of those that it is expected to help.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan unveiled the new pension plan on Wednesday, more than two years after the Liberals promised it during the last federal election — and only days before Christmas.

The plan promises more money to injured veterans than the current suite of benefits, especially the most severely disabled who can’t work and continue to suffer from service-related injuries.

Yet it offers only modest increases to those on the other end of the spectrum, and continues to provide many with less than the previous lifelong disability pensions, which were abolished in 2006.

“We were focused in this program on those who are catastrophically injured,” O’Regan explained during a news conference at National Defence Headquarters.

“Those who have received a disability or an illness during their service. Those who have a hard time going back to work. Those who have a hard time, as they say, re-establishing themselves.”

The plan is expected to cost $3.6 billion over six years, and will take effect in April 2019.

Veterans and support groups were scrambling after the announcement to figure out exactly how the changes would affect them and their clients, citing a lack of detail as a major complaint.

“It’s confusing,” said Jim Lowther, president of VETS Canada, which support homeless veterans in different cities across the country. “We’ve been going over this all morning, but it’s very vague.”

Veterans receive financial benefits and compensation based on the extent of their injuries or disabilities and whether those factors have an impact on their post-military career and earnings.

The existing system, created in 2006, provides a lump-sum worth up to $360,000 for the most severely disabled, in addition to rehabilitation, career training and income support.

While veterans who want the money right away will still be able to choose the lump-sum payment, the Liberals are also giving them the choice of a monthly payment instead worth up to $1,150.

Those with severe or permanent disabilities will also be eligible for an additional new benefit worth between $500 and $1,500 per month. Both benefits are tax free.

Officials said the more than 61,000 veterans who have already received a lump-sum award will be assessed to determine how much they would have received per month. They will also be eligible for the new benefit, which officials said will be retroactive and could result in substantial one-time payments.

The government will also lump together six different benefits for veterans who can’t find work or whose post-military careers pay less than when they were serving in uniform.

Yet it wasn’t immediately clear who will be eligible for different elements of the new pension plan, or even which of the income-replacement programs will remain in existence after they are merged.

O’Regan guaranteed no disabled veteran will end up with less money, and the department plans to launch an advertising campaign to educate former service members about the plan.

“All of those covered under the (existing) New Veterans Charter will be automatically assessed against the new pension-for-life program,” O’Regan said.

“And no individual will be subject to a net-decrease in overall benefit.”

But that didn’t stop many on social media from questioning whether they would see any real benefits, or prevent concerns about existing supports being clawed back.

“They’ve created chaos with a vague presentation,” said Aaron Bedard, one of six disabled Afghan veterans who launched a legal challenge against the federal government in an unsuccessful bid to force a return to the previous pension system.

“It’s like watching Game of Thrones: You get a couple of answers, but you end up with a dozen new questions.”

The Liberals’ new plan was also panned for continuing to offer less financial support for the majority of veterans than the lifelong pension system that existed prior to 2006 — the same criticism that bedevilled the previous Conservative government after it introduced the New Veterans Charter.

“So we still have this ludicrous situation where you can have two guys with the same injuries from the same war but at different times and getting different compensation,” said Mark Campbell, who lost both legs in Afghanistan.

“That’s fundamentally wrong, and it has not been addressed.”

The Conservatives and NDP were also critical that the new pensions won’t come into effect until April 2019, which O’Regan said was necessary to pass required legislation and ensure Veterans Affairs staff are ready for the change.
If you're confused after reading these articles, I don't blame you, and I certainly don't blame the veterans who are equally confused and frustrated with the Liberals' new plan.

As I understand it, depending on their disability, veteran will be eligible for a lump sum payment of up to a maximum of $360,000 or $1,150 per month for life (officials said only 12 percent of the veterans are eligible for the maximum amount and the average amount doled out thus far is $43,000).

In addition, if they are having difficulty re-establishing their lives because of a severe and permanent injury, they may receive an additional $500, $1,000, or $1,500 a month, depending on the extent of their impairment (these are tax-free benefits).

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said no disabled vet will end up with less money but clearly, the new plan doesn't address the discrepancies that bedeviled the previous Conservative government.

Importantly, one of the vets in the last article is right, you can't have two soldiers with the same injuries from the same war but at different times receiving different compensation. That is fundamentally wrong.

One word of caution to disabled vets, I agree with the government, you are much better off over the long run accepting the monthly payment than accepting a lump sum payment upfront. Don't make the mistake of asking for a lump sum payment, you will regret it.

I know PSP Investments manages the pensions of the Public Service, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Reserve Force. And they're doing a great job, so it's better to stick with the monthly payment for life, trust me on that.

Lastly, I read these stories about how we treat disabled veterans, and I must admit, I'm not impressed with how the Conservatives and Liberals have treated this file. It's just plain wrong and the message it sends out is disheartening, to say the least.

Importantly, I don't find Canada treats all people with disabilities, especially disabled vets, with the dignity and support they deserve.

I'll leave it at that because I have some other more nasty comments on how our country treats people with disabilities but it's Christmas and I'd rather stay polite and composed.

Below, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan unveiled the new pensions Wednesday, more than two years after the Liberals promised them during the last federal election — and only days before Christmas.

And Veterans Affairs Canada explains pensions for life. Disabled vets can find out more here. Again, my only word of caution, don't opt for the lump sum payment, go for the monthly payment for life.


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