1 October, 2012 - Appearance before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA)

Opening Remarks given by John Larlee, Chair, Veterans Review and Appeal Board

Mr. Chair, Honourable Committee Members.

Thank you for inviting us here today.

With me are member of my management team—Dale Sharkey, the Board's Director General, and Kathleen Vent, our Acting Director of Legal Services.

We are here today to talk to you about the Board and to update you on the improvements we have made since our last appearance in March.

The three main areas of improvement are faster decision-making, clearer decisions and how we are listening to Veterans.

First, I would like to tell you about the Board.

The Board's primary role is to support Veterans, members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP, and their families, in obtaining benefits for service-related disabilities.

We do this by providing an independent avenue of appeal for disability benefits decisions made by Veterans Affairs Canada.

Our independence is crucial – it means that we are not bound by the Department's decisions or policies.

At Board hearings, Veterans have the opportunity to tell their story, bring forward new information and be represented at no cost by lawyers from the Bureau of Pensions Advocates or by service officers from the Royal Canadian Legion.

The hearings are non-adversarial – no one is arguing against the Veteran.

Board members take a fresh new look at the information and will award new or increased benefits to Veterans if there is credible evidence that satisfies the legislation.

To come to the Board, Veterans need only be “dissatisfied” with their departmental decision.

Mr. Chair, the reality is that many Veterans are satisfied and never come to the Board.

Only ten-to-fifteen percent of the decisions made by the Department each year are appealed to the Board.

Last year, we issued a total of forty-nine hundred decisions for Veterans and other applicants.

We are pleased that we can change a large number of decisions to favour Veterans.

For a small tribunal, this is a high volume workload – especially since we deal with the most complex and challenging cases.

Veterans who come to the Board have access to two levels of independent redress: a Review hearing and, if they remain dissatisfied, an Appeal hearing.

The Review hearing is often a pivotal moment for Veterans.

It is their chance to finally appear before decision makers and be heard.

Our Board members take considerable care to conduct the hearings informally, with compassion and in the interest of giving the Veterans the last word.

Last year, the Board granted new or increased benefits to Veterans in half of its Review decisions.

If applicants are not satisfied with their Review decision, they can appeal it.

The Appeal hearing is an entirely new proceeding conducted by a different panel of Board members.

The legislation does not permit oral testimony at this level.

Rather, it is another opportunity for Veterans, through their representative, to submit new information and arguments in support of their case.

Last year, the Board granted new or increased benefits to Veterans in about one-third of its Appeal decisions.

These success rates tell us that Veterans and their families benefit from the opportunity to appeal their decisions to an independent tribunal.

Yet, despite the generous system, not every case can succeed.

While we know that some Veterans will disagree with our decisions, we are committed to dealing fairly and efficiently with their applications.

This means getting their cases heard at the earliest opportunity, conducting full and fair hearings, issuing clear decisions and treating them with respect and dignity.

Let me turn, now, to the three areas where we are making improvements to ensure that Veterans and their families are well-served.

First, we are getting decisions to Veterans sooner.

Thanks to technology and other improvements, we are processing Review applications about 20 per cent faster today than five years ago.

At Appeal, we cut the processing time in half.

We are also looking at other ways to get cases heard more quickly, including giving Veterans the option of having their hearings by video conference.

As I told you in March, the Board is conducting a business process redesign to find ways to cut red tape and make the process faster and easier for Veterans.

The second area of improvement I want to talk about is our focus on issuing fair and well-reasoned decisions for Veterans.

This begins with the Board's merit-based selection process that ensures new Members are qualified to hear and decide cases.

The criteria include a preference for members with military, medical, policing or legal backgrounds in recognition of the work we do and the people we serve.

Our two newest members, appointed last year, are a CF and RCMP Veteran.

Our excellent training program for new members combines practical teaching and support from experienced staff.

All Members receive ongoing and specialized training from medical, legal, military and lay experts on a variety of topics.

In fact, as part of our annual training, we will be hearing from Rear-Admiral Andrew Smith, Chief of Military Personnel, and other serving members, about military culture and operations at CFB Greenwood later this week.

We have also taken swift action to address recommendations from the Veterans Ombudsman and suggestions from stakeholders.

For example, we have established a team to improve the quality of decisions by ensuring they are well-organized, clearly expressed and written in plain language.

We will implement these improvements by the end of the year.

Our third area of focus is that we are working to serve and honour Veterans by listening to them and acting on their feedback.

Veterans have told us they want greater access to our decisions.

In May, we began publishing the Board's most relevant and instructive decisions on our Web site.

These noteworthy decisions help Veterans and the public better understand our work, and make applicants aware of decisions made in cases similar to their own.

We are also committed to maintaining and building our communications and partnerships with stakeholders.

In short, we are listening.

We know there is more work to do.

We are determined to make it happen, and as soon as possible.

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to extend an invitation to all Committee members to observe a Review hearing in one of our locations across Canada.

Two of your honourable colleagues, Mr. Stoffer and Mr. Casey, have already taken us up on this invitation and have told us it is a worthwhile experience.

With that, Mr. Chair, I would like to thank you for allowing me to talk to you today about the Board's commitment to serving Canada's Veterans, members of the CF and the RCMP, and their families.

I would be happy to answer your questions.