Twice-forgotten soldier sues Veterans Affairs over 'abandoned' case file
Critics say Charles Scott's case describes an overwhelmed VAC unable to keep up with veterans' pleas for help
When former master corporal Charles Scott left the army in 2008, a note was scribbled in his Veterans Affairs file warning that he faced a significant risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The warning was never followed up on by the department; no one ever contacted him about it and no one ever arranged for treatment. Scott himself didn't know about the assessment until more than a decade later, after he applied under privacy law to see his file — and several years after he had sought treatment for PTSD on his own.
It wouldn't be the last time the former combat soldier and army intelligence operative, who served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Bosnia and Afghanistan, fell through the cracks of the bureaucracy.
Scott launched a lawsuit in Federal Court last month accusing Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) of negligence and of violating federal law (the Veterans Well-being Act) in its handling of his file.
"It gives me no pleasure to sue Canada, a country that I joined to serve for benefits that impact me and my very young family," Scott, 45, told CBC News.
Scott said that his Veterans Affairs case manager stopped returning his calls and emails in the winter of 2019, just as the Liberal government was preparing to launch its long-awaited pension-for-life plan for Canada's former soldiers.
Buried and forgotten
What Scott didn't know at the time — and what it took an access-to-information request filed by him with the federal government to fully explain — is that his case manager had been gone from the department since early 2019. Scott's file, and possibly those of others, lay buried and forgotten in the Edmonton VAC office — and no one noticed until Scott called the veterans' crisis line in late April 2019.
"My file was abandoned and not handed over," he said. "The veteran team service manager in Edmonton did not hand over my file to another case manager."
As a result, Scott said, he missed his chance to lock in the supplementary career replacement benefits which had been a feature of Veterans Affairs' old benefits system before being phased out with the introduction of the current Liberal government's revised system.
He was forced to join the new system of benefits — a system that, prior to its introduction on April 1, 2019, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said was less generous than the old system to the most severely disabled veterans.
Scott's statement of claim doesn't cite a sum at this point, but he estimates the federal government's error has cost him as much as $1,000 per month.
Scott, who worked for several years as a federal occupational health and safety inspector before PTSD overwhelmed his life, said he did not want to sue the federal government but was left with no alternative.
"I have made every attempt to contact the minister of Veterans Affairs. I have made every attempt to contact members of Parliament without success," he said.
'It's not fair'
Critics tracking the veterans file — like NDP MP Rachel Blaney — say Scott's experience fits with what they've heard from other veterans, and describes an overtaxed Veterans Affairs bureaucracy that can't keep up with veterans' pleas for help.
"It's absolutely unacceptable," said Blaney. "We have heard from folks working at VAC they have a lot of concerns about this very thing happening and that they're under-resourced in terms of staffing to deal with these issues.
"It's not fair that our veterans are the ones paying for the consequence of that."
It's also a perfect illustration of what the Liberal government was warned about when it implemented the overhaul of veterans benefits, Blaney said, adding the government should have "listened more closely to the people who are analyzing the system."
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The Liberal government under Paul Martin proposed in 2005 to replace the decades-old system of veterans benefits under the Pension Act with a new system called the New Veterans Charter.
The subsequent Conservative government under Stephen Harper adopted the charter, then tweaked it in response to protests from veterans. The campaigning Liberals promised in 2015 to restore to veterans a choice between a pension for life and a lump-sum payment as compensation for service-related injuries.
But before the Liberal plan could be implemented, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux wrote a report warning that while the plan would be slightly more generous than the system it replaced, it still would leave many in worse financial shape they would have been under the old pre-Veterans Charter system.
"From the perspective of the veteran, virtually all clients would be better off if they received the benefits of the (pre-2006) Pension Act," Giroux's report says.
'I missed out on a lot'
Scott is bitter.
"All of my occupational injuries and illnesses are pre-2006," he said. "I missed out on the Pension Act. I missed out on those financial services. I missed out on a lot, just like a lot of other Canadians."
VAC spokespeople won't speak to the particulars of Scott's case, citing privacy protections. They also haven't explained why Scott's file was allowed to languish, or say how many other soldiers might be affected by forgotten files.
VAC spokesperson Marc Lescoutre told CBC News in an email that, normally, the department "proactively" reassigns files as required — when a case manager is set to retire soon, for example.
When a case manager leaves unexpectedly, or calls in sick, the on-duty case manager is supposed to take over the manager's files.
As for the problems with the department's services for veterans and the pension plan, another VAC spokesperson, John Embury, issued a statement noting that the "Pension for Life" program represented a $3.6 billion federal investment, and citing the government's promise to review how the "Pension for Life" plan is being administered.
"As directed by both the prime minister and the minister of Veterans Affairs, VAC is thoroughly reviewing the implementation of Pension for Life, and may recommend changes, where needed, to improve the outcomes and experiences of veterans and their families," said the statement.