Wounded soldiers to get higher payments as Liberals hedge on pension promise

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Wounded soldiers to get higher payments as Liberals hedge on pension promise

Next week's federal budget will re-iterate the Liberal government's campaign promise of returning to injured veterans to a system of lifetime pensions, government sources told CBC News on Friday.

But there will be no dollar figures attached to the assurance in Wednesday's fiscal plan — something the sources say will change later this year.

The political trial balloon, which is also being reported by Radio-Canada, came on the same day the Veteran Affairs department issued a statement reminding the public, and the politically-charged veterans community in particular, that lump-sum injury payments to wounded ex-soldiers will increase on April 1.

In addition, those who've already received the contentious disability awards going back to 2006 will be eligible for extra cash.

It is the latest in a flurry of mostly behind-the-scene activity involving the sensitive veterans file.

The sources said the decision to reference the campaign promise in the budget, without providing dollar figures, was meant to ease growing unrest in the veterans community.

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr was before a House of Commons committee last week, where he was decidedly circumspect about whether the government would fulfil the life-time pension commitment in next week's budget.

He was pointedly asked about it by an opposition Conservative MP, who noted that no funding had been set aside in this year's preliminary budget estimates.

"It remains part of the to-do list," Hehr responded. "We remain committed fully to providing an option for a pension for life for our veterans who have become ill or injured as a result of their service in the military. This was part of our campaign commitment."

When pressed, Hehr would only say the Liberals would live up to the pledge some time during the government's mandate.

"Your veterans can expect this promise to be kept within the four-year term of the Liberal government. I will be proud to stand up and say we have delivered that pension option for our veterans," the minister testified on March 9.

But the government sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told CBC News the intention is roll out the revised pension plan later this year in order to begin issuing cheques to veterans by 2018 — a year ahead of the next election call.

Devil in the details

A spokesman for Canadian Veterans Advocacy, Sylvain Chartrand, was skeptical.

"We can't be happy until we see the numbers," he said. "We need to know the numbers, 'cause the details are in the numbers. This will tell us exactly what type of return to the pension it's going to be."

One of the demands from veterans groups is that the revised plan reflect the generosity of the previous system under the old pension act.

Parity is unlikely to happen, said the sources.

Finance Department documents, obtained by CBC News under Access to Information legislation, show the current veterans benefits regime represents a "$60.6-billion obligation in the government of Canada's financial statements, and are recognized as a form of non-marketable debt."

The memo to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, dated Dec. 22, 2015, said the government will have to exercise "up-front fiscal discipline" on the file — meaning it will have to carefully calibrate programs to ensure they don't drive up long-term debt.

The old system

Following the First and Second World Wars and the Korea conflict, wounded soldiers received life-time pensions depending upon the severity of injury. That changed in 2006 with the introduction of the New Veterans Charter, which brought in workers compensation-style lump-sum payments.

The revision is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit launched by soldiers injured in the Afghan War, who say they will receive less over their lifetimes compared to troops from previous wars, and that constitutes discrimination.

Justice Department lawyers argued in 2013 that the federal government had no extraordinary, legislated obligation to wounded soldiers — something that drives ex-soldiers to campaign against former prime minister Stephen Harper's government.

The legal case was put on hold under the Conservatives, but re-started by the Liberals soon after the 2015 election.

Friday's announcement by the department means the maximum eligible tax-free payout will move to $360,000 from $314,000 on April 1. That increase was first announced in last year's budget.

And those who've already received the disability award will get a top-up payment retroactive to when the new system was introduced in 2006.

"We thought it was the right thing to do," Hehr told the committee.

2016 budget being felt

Many of the promises the Liberal government made to the country's veterans in the last election and the last budget are about to be felt by the federal treasury.

Enhanced funding for a whole suite of benefits, including the earnings loss benefit and the permanent impairment allowance, will be increased.

The measures, announced as part of a five-year $5.7-billion commitment to ex-soldiers in last year's budget, mean a 30 per cent increase in the size of the Veterans Affairs department when compared to last year.

Hehr also told the committee last week that the government has hired an additional 381 staff to help process and manage the benefits claims of veterans, a figure just shy of the 400 employees and managers the Liberals promised to bring into the system.