Every once in a while I get cocky and start to believe that our interactions with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) are finally sorted out. That they will pay what they are supposed to pay and I can stop worrying, stop asking our case manager twenty questions and stop emailing Cabinet Ministers to make things happen. But those moments have come and gone so many times I really must be crazy to believe it is even possible.
Before I explain our current issue, I have to say this is not about wanting pity, that is not my intention. I am sharing this very personal story because I know we are not alone. I know financials fears are very real for many vets (along with many other Canadians), and rightly so. Financial instability is one of the main issues that cause families to break up, it contributes to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and certainly makes coping with PTSD even more challenging. Financial crisis can lead people down a dark road, and in the extreme can even lead to suicide. So to anyone who says it is ‘just about money’ has not experienced the real fear and shame that is accompanied by knowing that you are not in a position to maintain the quality of life for yourself or your family, and you are depending on to an organization like Veteran’s Affairs to keep afloat.
Our latest drama was caused by a single brown envelope (we seriously get nervous opening anything from the government) that contained a letter from the VAC financial department saying that my husband has been overpaid since 2017 by over $9000 and that they want that money back. Now you might wonder how could we not know that we were being overpaid, and I too might wonder that if I had not seen the number of various VAC funds he gets money from. For example, he receives his superannuation (pension for his 20+yrs), another is called Diminished Earnings Capacity, another is called Earnings Loss Benefit, and yet another called Career Impact Allowance. Keep in mind all of the names of these ‘entitlements’ can change over time as he is moved from one category to another (for reasons I cannot explain) and these funds can change names over time as well. They are all supposed to total approximately 80% of his ‘pre-injury’ salary (in case anyone doesn’t know, a soldier that is not injured receives a pension of 40% of his salary after 20yrs of service). Every injured vet has a unique calculation based on type and severity of the injury, how long they served, and probably other things I do not understand. But since my husband has severe PTSD as a result of an IED explosion in Afghanistan where two of his peers were killed, and even the military agrees, this prevents him from full-time employment in any career, but certainly not in that in which he was trained, he gets the extra % to ‘top up’ his income to approximately 80% of what he used to make.
So a few years ago, my husband started a photography business hoping to subsidize his pension knowing he could not return the type of work he did in the military, but not yet knowing if he would qualify for the other benefits (a family of 4 could not survive on 40% pension). He took every relevant course at a local college to make it successful and worked at it for 2 years before accepting that it was just not feasible to maintain for the money he was making (which was minimal). During this time he found a local small business that needed help and offered flexible hours to accommodate him. He knew he would benefit from getting out of the house, have social interaction, and add to the family income even though the pay was minimum wage, which is $14/hr here. He has enjoyed working there 2 to 4 days/wk for over a year.
However, what no one told us, even when I specifically asked, was that we needed to declare this income to VAC and they would deduct approximately 50% of everything he earns from his ‘top up’ (we always declare it to the CRA). So last month, VAC decides to ask us for all past earned income since leaving DND, and now they say he has been overpaid by $9698.56 since 2017 and they want it back (which is the fastest time we ever had anything processed through VAC). They will also now deduct approx 50% from future earnings, so now from his part-time job, he will get to keep $7.00/hr.
In terms of trying to figure how this ‘approximately 50% calculation’ is made, I reviewed VAC policies online which just made me more confused, so I called the VAC 1-800 # they provided on the letter. I tried to explain our situation and ask for information on why we are only learning about it now, how this whole calculation was made, how do they expect the repayment and how do we prevent this from happening again. But alas, the VAC agent could not answer any of my questions, except to say that the government will not care that we were not aware of this and will simply want the money back. He sympathized and simply suggested we call my husband’s case manager (we have already written to her) and then the ‘Overpayment Unit’ (this obviously happens enough to require a Unit) to find out about monthly re-payment options, but they would not be able to explain how the calculations are made. Again he said the case manager should have the answers, but from experience, she will say she has nothing to do with the financial side of things.
If this is not the definition of crazy-making, I don’t know what is.
The icing on this financial cake is that we just filed our income taxes for 2018 and my husband has to pay another $5800 in taxes as well. Now, for people who choose to pay their taxes only when required, you may not relate to the shock of this. But since my husband has worked for DND for 20 years and never owed additional income taxes in the spring because enough had been deducted every month, to now receiving 5 different T4 slips (one for each entitlement from VAC + the PT job) and none of which deducted sufficient amounts (even after formally requesting they deduct more) it is quite a shock (although better than in 2017 when he owed $10 000 in taxes because they hardly deducted any all year).
I realize plenty of people are having bigger financial difficulties than this. We have a comfortable house, food, a car each and enough money to do some special things (partly due to the fact I was a borderline OCD saver for most of my life). But when it comes to being told: “it’s ok to get a part-time job to supplement your income” to “you owe us $9000+” (plus $5800 in taxes) I find it beyond frustrating. Since getting the letter, we have not had a good nights sleep and we feel defeated, frustrated and ashamed that we find ourselves owing a lot of money that we don’t have right now (all extra money last year went into updating our bathrooms as the tiles were about to fall off the walls).
This is the kind of stress that doesn’t just disappear once this current issue is resolved (which hopefully will be soon). I will worry that VAC will send another letter saying they’ve overpaid us for reasons that I can’t even yet imagine. The feelings of shame and embarrassment don’t just disappear either. I grew up with a father who was a stereotypical accountant. He balanced the family budget every day, collected every receipt and knew exactly where every dollar went. I have never been this diligent, but I have been careful never to spend more than I had, to save for a rainy day, to donate to those less fortunate and I always follow the rules. And yet this time I feel punished for something we didn’t even know about because my husband was trying to add to the family income.
***new info: Today I spoke with his career manager and apparently a bunch of policies and programs are changing as of April 1st. So instead of 4 entitlements, they will be amalgamated into one and vets will be entitled to make $20000/yr without penalty. This is good news… BUT change is always challenging (anyone dealing with the Phoenix system will know) and growing pains are very likely***
PS. This won’t change what we owe