Veterans Affairs minister responds to pension change critics

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan says the latest pension plan changes improve upon, but will not replace, 2006 Veterans Charter that all political parties endorsed.

'I won’t go back to the Pension Act of 1919,' says federal minister Seamus O'Regan

Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan announces changes to veterans pensions during a news conference. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Veteran Affairs Minister Seamus O`Regan is in British Columbia this week to talk about the pension plan changes for veterans announced last month.

The federal government promised in the 2015 election to reinstate lifetime pensions for injured veterans.

Those were abolished in 2006 and replaced by lump-sum payments.

Under changes announced last month, former soldiers can still choose to receive a lump sum of up to $360,000 or they can choose to receive a lifetime pension instead of up to $1,150 a month.

The most severely disabled veterans can also get an additional monthly allowance of up to $1,500.

In an interview with On the Island guest host Khalil Akhtar, O'Regan responded to criticism of the new plan.

What's your response to the National Council of Veterans Associations' criticism the monthly pension for veterans remain lower than in 2006?

The maximum monthly payment will indeed be slightly increased for those people with a 100 per cent disability.

We'd heard from veterans organizations that said, and that still say to me as I go around talking to people about this new pension-for-life proposal, that it was never really about the money, it was about the services.

"Now, we have all these services in place. The lump sum, though, was a real thorn in a lot of people's sides. Because it felt like they were being written off, written off the ledger, you know, here's your money, now go away.

What we're offering here is the ability to take that by the month at an increased and far more generous rate."

The NCVA says veterans with the same injuries receive different compensation levels if one fought before 2006 and one was injured after 2006: Up to $2,733 a month under the old pensions, compared to a maximum of $2,600 under the new plan. What do you make of that point?

It's an argument that was had in 2006, over the New Veterans Charter. We are building on an agreement that was made by all parties and many veterans groups back in 2006.

There is a short window there where you did have an overlap, where you had men and women who were fighting side-by-side in Afghanistan, some who would fall under the Pension Act of 1919 and some who would fall under the New Veterans Charter. That is absolutely true.

With the increased benefits that we're allowing right now, we're going back to those people who received those lump sum payments, 2006 and after, and we are going to calculate how much they would have received if they had those new benefits when they accepted that amount.

Then we subtract the lump sum that we've given them and give them the rest over monthly payments. I mean, for some people, this could be a substantial amount of money.

The new program won't come into effect until April 1, 2019. Why is it taking so long? Why not this year?

Partially related to another subject, and that's Phoenix (the federal government's troubled pay system). Laying out very specialized financial compensation to thousands of people we, you know, now know can be very complicated work.

There's also a legislative agenda. We're already under the gun, I can tell you, to make sure this legislation gets drafted.

Some veterans who voted for the Liberals did so thinking the disparity between the old system and the new one would be adressed. What do you say to veterans who feel let down by your new plan?

I won't go back to the Pension Act of 1919.  It did not meet the needs of our veterans. That's what we heard in 2006.

That's why every political party in Parliament agreed to this. We focus on rehabilitative services. We focus on the ability of people getting back to meaningful work because I know first hand, in my own experience, that there is nothing better than meaningful work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 With files from CBC's On the Island

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