A group that advises Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr on policy issues has fired a warning shot over the Liberal government's plan to offer wounded veterans the "option" of lifetime pensions, CBC News has learned.

The panel, consisting of former soldiers and advocates, says the long-awaited overhaul must not be a simple redistribution of money that's already available.

In the last election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals appealed to aggrieved veterans with a promise to "re-establish lifelong pensions as an option" as well as increase the value of compensation for an injury.

The current system was conceived and passed in 2005 by the Liberal government of former prime minister Paul Martin and enacted and championed by the former Conservative government. It sees wounded soldiers who've lost limbs or suffered emotional trauma given a lump sum payment — or the option of taking that one-time, tax-free award "over time."

The policy advisory group, which has acted as Hehr's sounding board, is getting signals that the Liberals mean to simply take the lump sum award and divide it into monthly payments.

In a May 12 letter, the panel warned that such a scheme "does not provide the lifetime financial security" that veterans were expecting from the Liberal campaign promise.

Waiting on the details

The spring federal budget reiterated the pension pledge, but attached no price tag to the assurance and simply told the public to stay tuned for more details and dollar figures when a revised program would be rolled out later this year.

The Liberals are expected to consider a final version of their plan over the summer.

FedElxn Liberals 20150824

Justin Trudeau campaigned on restoring lifelong pensions for wounded veterans in the last election, but Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr has been non-committal on a timeline. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

At the time of the budget, a senior government official speaking on background said the intention is to roll out the revised pension plan later this year and issue cheques to veterans by 2018 — a year ahead of the next election call.

The new plan, however, "would not seek parity with the old pension act," that pre-dates the Conservative changes, the official told CBC News last spring.

At the same time, the letter to Hehr expressed frustration that the advisory panel's recommendations were being ignored and "deliberately pushed down the line for further review and evaluation."

Specifically, the advisers pointed to their October 2016 report, delivered to Veterans Affairs, which suggested rolling a suite of already existing benefits and entitlements, including the Exceptional Incapacity Allowance and Attendance Allowance, into "a single stream of income for life." 

Minister's statement

A government official emphasized, on background, no decision has yet been made and noted that if the solution was as simple as dividing up the lump sum, it would have already happened.

Hehr, in a written statement on Sunday, said he is balancing a lot of different advice and viewpoints.

'I've never seen so much song and dance and jiggery-pokery to cover-up from doing the right thing' - Sean Bruyea, veterans advocate

"While I cannot comment on the specifics of a letter sent to me in confidence, I will say that I value the opinions and contributions of each of the six advisory groups who provide valued advice to myself and the department as we work to fulfill our commitment to improve the services and benefits offered to veterans and their families," Hehr said, noting how much the government had already invested in new and improved services.

"We have a lot still to accomplish and, while we cannot do everything at once, we will continue to welcome input from our advisory groups, as well as the broader veterans community, and experts within our department and without to ensure we develop the most effective policy for present and future veterans.‎"

The political stakes for the Liberal government are high and getting higher, particularly in light of how Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have recently framed the defence policy review in terms of caring for the troops.

"It is going to be extremely important, moving forward, that Canadians see their government has heard the pride that all Canadians feel in supporting our troops and that we demonstrate with concrete actions and investments that our priority is in supporting the extraordinary men and women of the Canadian Forces, who choose to serve," Trudeau said at last week's NATO Summit.

Current vs. last system

The Liberals have invested, or plan to invest over the next five years, more than $6 billion in improved benefits for ex-soldiers.

However, it was the prospect of returning to pensions-for-life for the wounded which galvanized the veterans community in the last campaign.

The existing lump sum award is worth a maximum of $360,000 and has been a political lightning rod since being introduced in 2006 as part of a series of benefits changes under the new veterans charter.

It's the centrepiece of a class-action lawsuit by Afghan veterans, who allege that the new system is not as generous as the one it replaced under the old pension act.

In defending against the suit, Justice Department lawyers argued in 2013 the federal government had no extraordinary, legislated obligation to wounded soldiers — something that drove veterans to campaign against the former Conservative government.

How a new Liberal plan to spread out payments would differ from one former prime minister Stephen Harper's government attempted to deliver in 2011 is unclear.

Sean Bruyea

Veterans advocate Sean Bruyea says the Liberal government should live up to its promise to return to lifetime pensions for wounded soldiers. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

At that time, Conservatives were just starting to feel the heat of disgruntled veterans, and as part of the five-year review of the charter they introduced a plan to give recipients the "option" of regular payments, as opposed to the lump sum.

Sean Bruyea, an advocate for veterans, says the intent of the original overhaul under the new veterans charter was to do away with lifetime pensions altogether.

A tradition of lifelong pensions

The bureaucracy has been tying itself in knots ever since the Liberals were elected to figure how to avoid fulfilling that promise, he said.

"I've never seen so much song and dance and jiggery-pokery to cover-up from doing the right thing," said Bruyea, who fought a high-profile battle with Veterans Affairs over a privacy breach where his personal medical information was spread around the department.

"We have almost a century of honouring lifelong injuries with lifelong compensation and they are throwing that out the window."

Others, such as the veterans ombudsman, Guy Parent, have argued there are other benefits in addition to the lump sum that help make up the difference.

Clarifications

  • This updates a previous version of the story which stated the veterans' charter was introduced by the former Conservative government. It was conceived and passed by the Liberal government of former prime minister Paul Martin in 2005, and enacted by the Conservatives after the election in 2006.
    May 29, 2017 9:37 AM ET