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Guy Parent, veterans ombudsman, appears at a Senate veterans committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in this Oct. 19, 2011, file photo. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Guy Parent, veterans ombudsman, appears at a Senate veterans committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in this Oct. 19, 2011, file photo. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Veterans ombudsman blasts Ottawa's handling of disability claims Add to ...

Steve White was serving as a leading seaman on HMCS Toronto in 1999 when a 300-pound-steel door caught in the wind and swung shut, smashing into his back. A veteran of two Gulf War tours who had enlisted when he was 18 years old, Mr. White reported to sick bay for painkillers, and returned to duty. By the time he left the navy in 2006, he was struggling with developing arthritis in a previously injured knee, and recurring pain in his back that has never gone away.

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For the knee, Canadian Forces paid him disability, pensioned at 33 per cent of his income. But at the age of 40, he walks with a cane, and even then not very far, and parks in the handicapped zone. He’s between jobs now, and his options are limited. But like so many veterans, he has an unofficial part-time job battling with Veterans Affairs for what he feels he’s due.

So far, the department won’t recognize his back injury: Responses suggest, he says, it’s because officials say he wasn’t officially on duty at the time it occurred. That’s near as he can tell anyway. When it comes to giving reasons for denying a soldier benefits, as a new report has found, Veteran Affairs appears to favour cloak and dagger over clear and present.

In a review of response letters like those sent to Mr. White, the nation’s ombudsman for veterans, has harshly criticized the federal department for failing to properly explain why some soldiers have been denied disability coverage, thereby making it difficult for them to launch an appeal. Guy Parent says that all the letters reviewed by his office had problems with clarity – and 15 per cent gave no explanation at all for the department’s decision.

“If veterans are sending us a letter that we can’t even understand, then there is a problem,” Mr. Parent said in an interview. Without a clear explanation, he observed, how can a soldier know the next steps to appeal the decision?

Benefits for disabled veterans have been an ongoing controversy in Canada, leading to a class-action suit against Ottawa by former soldiers whose benefits, they argue, have been unfairly reduced. Previously, Mr. Parent’s office has discovered that Veterans Affairs failed to tell the most severely injured soldiers properly about the financial support available to them – in that case, the ombudsman found that half of the 1,800 veterans assessed with a 98-per-cent disability were never told that they were entitled to additional support beyond what Veterans Affairs provided.

There is a new urgency to solve the issue quickly as troops settle back home after missions in Afghanistan. National Defence statistics released this month found that 2,000 soldiers were injured during the country’s 10-year combat mission in Afghanistan, but that does not include the thousands of soldiers affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome and other mental-health issues.

“It’s a nightmare for any veteran to go through this process and very few of them understand it,” said Sean Bruyea, a former intelligence officer with the Armed Forces who has also joined the class-action suit. He points out that the issue of a fair and open system of disability claims goes back to the Second World War when the government was also criticized for having review boards staffed with non-military and non-medical personnel making decisions about soldiers’ futures. He has also joined the critics of the lump sum that Veterans Affairs pay to injured soldiers, which often amounts to less than the disability payments they would receive from workers’ compensation.

Part of the complication is that while some physical injuries are easily assessed, soldiers often suffer from psychological issues such at PTSD, which until fairly recently often went undiagnosed or was downplayed. They may also develop illnesses or health issues years after active service – as is the case with many older veterans.

For Sharla St. Germaine, her husband’s broken ankle while on a military march has meant piles of paperwork and hours trying to figure out how to successfully obtain benefits – and in their case, with three children with developmental issues, that is not time that they have. Her husband, Kurt, an army linesman who is still serving with the military, had to get his bones in his foot and ankle fused following his injury.

“It feels like they just throw everything at you and see what sticks,” said Ms. St. Germaine of the confusing letters she has received denying her husband’s claim for benefits. (She said he has received $2,300 for his damaged bone in his foot, but the department refuses to recognize the injury to his ankle, despite medical reports that support the family.)

“We’re not giving up,” said Ms. St. Germaine, who is worried about the long-term impact on her family’s income if her husband, who limps and can no longer go on long marches, has to eventually leave the military. “But the time we are spending chasing people, chasing case workers, navigating the system, is taking time away from our family.”

The ombudsman report recommends that reasons for all disability coverage decisions should be written in plain language, with a clear explanation of how the individual assessment was made. Each letter should also include a notice of the right to appeal.

“It troubles me to think that many Veterans may be wrongly assessed and do not pursue the matter further because [their]letter did not reveal where the department’s decision was flawed,” Mr. Parent wrote in the report.

Codie Taylor, director of communications for Veterans Affairs minister Steven Blaney, said “cutting red tape and providing hassle-free services to our veterans is Minister Blaney’s top priority. The Minister welcomes the recommendations in the ombudsman’s report and intends to act quickly.”

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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