Everyone in southwestern Manitoba knows a veteran. I have met many neighbours who served with distinction in the World Wars, Korea, the Cold War and peacekeeping.
Today, a new generation of veterans includes those brave men and women who have served in Afghanistan or at home during natural disasters. We have all read stories of veterans having to fight with Veterans Affairs for assistance.
It is unfortunately inevitable in any government that some individuals occasionally fall through a crack. However, our veterans deserve to know that those of us in Ottawa are making every possible effort to reduce the number and size of those cracks across the system.
I want to make it very clear that I believe there are legitimate issues that call for improvement. I am not alone, and our government is in the process of undertaking a comprehensive review of the New Veterans Charter to ensure that Veterans Affairs meets requirements for program and service delivery to seriously injured veterans and support for their families.
Recent organizational changes at the Brandon Veterans Affairs office have some suggesting that veterans will have to go to Winnipeg to access services. Those who mislead veterans about the need to travel are doing a disservice to local veterans who might not seek services that are, in fact, available. Let me correct the record.
Following the local reorganization, veterans will still have access to frontline services in downtown Brandon at the same building they are used to visiting on Princess Avenue. Due to a relatively low case load, a full-time dedicated, experienced and specialized Veterans Affairs case worker has been moved down the hall to our local Service Canada office in the Federal Government Services Building.
Our local team of Service Canada employees are also being trained to provide veterans-related services.
Veterans will still have access to the Veterans Affairs office at CFB Shilo, which has experienced case workers, and veterans who are unable to attend either office will continue to have access to in-house visits. Veterans also have the option to apply for an expanding number of resources and services online.
Many of our younger veterans make more use of our online application process rather than seek information from case workers or fill out paperwork in person at Veterans Affairs offices. That increased online activity is expected to continue, reflecting service trends taking place in society at large.
Why was Brandon's office chosen to be reorganized? It simply came down to a low case load relative to other offices.
Between the Veterans Affairs offices in Brandon and Shilo, there are only approximately 70 open cases. Brandon's former standalone office generally received fewer than 10 visits per day, with the majority to drop off forms. Veterans Affairs believed that a single dedicated Veterans Affairs case worker utilizing Service Canada support could adequately deal with the less-than-five substantive daily in-person visits.
It is important to remember that local Veterans Affairs offices and case workers do not directly deliver resources or programs to our veterans. Their important job is to provide guidance and assistance with information requests and applications for programs.
Our government's objective is to make sure that as much of our Veterans Affairs budget as possible is directed to the programs and resources that are ultimately delivered to our veterans once they have gone through the information gathering and application process.
Since 2006, our government has focused on improving resources and by increasing veterans' benefit funding allocation by $4.7 billion. This money has expanded eligibility for the Permanent Impairment Allowance to 3,000 more veterans and established the $1,000 per month Permanent Impairment Allowance Supplement.
We have also established a minimum monthly income for veterans in rehabilitation. In addition, the maximum amount a veteran's family is eligible for under the Funeral and Burial Program has doubled from $3,600 to $7,363. Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defence have been able to open 31 Integrated Personnel Support Centres and 17 Operational Stress Injury Clinics with increased funding.
At these centres, staff work to develop personalized care plans to help recover from injuries and illnesses and to make a successful transition to civilian life.
Furthermore, our government has made major improvements to the Veterans Independence Program to assist with housekeeping, grounds maintenance, personal care, and access to nutrition. The increased funding for this program is now being provided through upfront payments to veterans. Increased payments are now upfront and do not require receipts.
These are all good measures, but more needs to be done. The way veterans seek information about and apply for resources and programs from Veterans Affairs is changing as veterans' demographics change. This is an opportunity and not a threat. With more modern, efficient communications methods, government can focus funding on resources and programs, while maintaining a more nimble and efficient in-person case worker network across the country for veterans who prefer it, including our senior veterans.
I believe that by taking advantage of new technology that allows veterans to access information and apply for programs more efficiently, government can put a renewed focus on resource and program funding. This shift is critically important to better serve veterans in the future.
If any veteran still has issues accessing services, I urge you to contact my office. Even though a lot has been done, there is still much more to do, including improving programs aimed at providing assistance for mental health-related issues.
This is a priority of mine that I know is shared by my Conservative colleagues in Ottawa including MPs Laurie Hawn and Erin O'Toole, both of whom are veterans and strongly support our government's plan of action.
Larry N. Maguire, MP