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Ottawa takes too-narrow approach to Agent Orange payouts: ombudsman

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent believes the Veterans Affairs Department should be spared the budget cuts that the Conservatives are demanding of other government departments.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's veterans ombudsman is slamming the federal government over its handling of Agent Orange payouts, saying it is using a too-narrow interpretation of the rules to deny some veterans the money they are owed.

"The definitions used by Veterans Affairs Canada would not withstand public or legal scrutiny," ombudsman Guy Parent wrote in a statement, adding, "This is nothing short of scandalous."

In 2007, the federal government offered a one-time payout of $20,000 to veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange during tests run by the U.S. military at a Canadian Forces base in New Brunswick.

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The veterans had to prove they had been on or near the base when the tests were run and later diagnosed with a medical condition associated with Agent Orange exposure, such as Hodgkin's disease, respiratory or prostate cancer or type two diabetes.

In cases where a veteran died before the payments began, a primary caregiver was allowed to apply for the money.

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the department has been fair in compensating veterans.

"Our government promised to deal with the Agent Orange issue and we delivered on this promise," Codie Taylor wrote in an e-mail to the Globe and Mail.

But Mr. Parent says the government is using a narrow definition of the term "primary caregiver" that excludes people he believes should be eligible.

"In one case, the widow of a man who met the eligibility criteria was denied payment… because her husband was in a long-term care facility at time of his death and she did not live with him at the facility," Mr. Parent wrote.

He said the couple had been married for 50 years and the woman continued to care for her husband in the facility during the 17 months he spent there.

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The order in council establishing the payouts refers to a primary caregiver as someone who wasn't paid and took care of the individual during the year immediately before they died. The caregiver was also required to live in the person's home during that time.

Mr. Parent said he believes the woman's case meets the intent of the order in council.

"No one questions the need for eligibility criteria," Mr. Parent wrote. "But eligibility criteria must respect the spirit of the legislation to which they refer. The policies pertaining to primary caregivers developed by Veterans Affairs Canada to administer the Agent Orange ex gratia payment do not do that."

Mr. Parent could not be reached to comment further on the statement. But his deputy ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, said the office has received six complaints about Agent Orange compensation since Nov. 8.

He said two of the cases his office was handling related to the definition of primary caregiver, while four concerned applications that were received after department's deadline.

Mr. Walbourne said some people missed the deadline because they had to wait for the results of their medical tests to come back before they could apply.

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One man, whose case has since been reconsidered, was on a mission in the Middle East when the deadline passed and was initially denied the benefit for that reason, he said.

With one week remaining before the deadline to pay veterans under the deal expires, the ombudsman's office says it is concerned there won't be time for the department to review other cases to ensure everyone entitled to the payout receives it.

Ms. Taylor said the program has already been extended once to allow more people to submit their applications.

"Until December 31, 2011, Minister Blaney will continue to monitor cases to ensure fair and accurate decisions are being made," she wrote.

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Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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