03/26/2014 03:58 EDT | Updated 05/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Existing support may be enough to fight old-age poverty in vets: officials

OTTAWA - The Veterans Affairs Department is weighing whether federal programs will provide enough of a safety net to keep the most severely injured ex-soldiers from falling into poverty after they turn 65.

Minister Julian Fantino and senior officials have told a Senate committee that concerns about gaps in coverage, raised last fall by the veterans ombudsman, are still under review.

But Fantino suggests some worries may be addressed by a parliamentary review of the new veterans charter, the Harper government's signature legislation that governs the benefits and entitlement of those who served.

"This is an issue that's on their radar and we hope there's a recommendation that comes forward," he said.

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent found that hundreds of disabled veterans, most from Afghanistan and recent peacekeeping missions, will be left out in the cold at 65 because they don't have a military pension and will lose some allowances.

Mary Chaput, deputy minister of veterans affairs, says the ombudsman may be on to something, but officials need to study the situation.

"The analysis needs to continue," she said. "I think the ombudsman is on to something here. We've just got to figure out precisely what's the cause of that gap. Is it a flaw in the design of some of our programs that we can fix through eligibility criteria that need to be tweaked?"

A calculation of "a certain benefit might need to be adjusted to ensure that this person doesn't fall off a cliff from a government of Canada point of view," Chaput said.

Other existing government programs such as Canada Pension Plan benefits and old age security, are available and officials are looking at how they help these ex-soldiers, she added.

"So, the question is, as some of our programs may cease and these other programs — government of Canada programs — kick in, where does that leave the veteran?"

The ombudsman's study last fall compared the old system of compensating veterans under the Pension Act with the New Veterans Charter.

Since its inception in 2006, many veterans have complained the charter is not as generous as the previous system — a notion that is driving a lawsuit by Afghan war veterans.

Parent's actuarial study shows ex-soldiers end up with more money in their pockets before turning 65 than with the checkerboard of pensions it replaced.

But some benefit ends on retirement. And the ombudsman said at the time that it's "not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country — those who are totally and permanently incapacitated — live their lives with unmet financial needs."

Also, the study found awards for so-called non-economic benefits, such as payments for lost limbs and trauma, pale in comparison to what was given out before when pensions are stretched over a lifetime.

Parent said the lump-sum payments don't equal what are handed out by Canadian courts in personal injury cases.