Veteran alleges another privacy breach at department

Another veterans' advocate has discovered his medical files accessed by staff at Veterans Affairs Canada, a year after Sean Bruyea settled his privacy complaint.
Medically discharged Corporal Dennis Manuge holds his head as he listens to then-veterans ombudsman Col. (ret.) Patrick B. Stogran speak in Ottawa last August. Manuge says staff at Veterans Affairs Canada and at the minister's office accessed his confidential files unnecessarily. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Another veterans' advocate says government officials breached his privacy by unnecessarily going into his medical record hundreds of times, one year after Sean Bruyea settled a similar complaint.

In an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio's The House, Dennis Manuge said he decided to look into his own file when he heard Bruyea's complaints. Manuge often appears alongside Bruyea to demand changes to how the government treats veterans, and is leading a class action lawsuit against the government over a claw-back on disability benefits.

Bruyea went public after discovering through requests under federal access to information laws that Veterans Affairs Canada staff had gone into his personal files and put confidential medical information into briefing notes to ministers under both the Liberal and Conservative governments.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said she found it alarming that officials shared Bruyea's information with seemingly no controls.

Manuge says records show his file was accessed between 900 and 1,000 times from 2002 to 2010. The records end before Bruyea settled his complaint.

"They literally have your entire life on paper. All your medical records, everything that there is, that you’ve disclosed in applications to receive psychological, physical services and benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada," he said.

Many of the people who accessed Manuge's file appear to have done so legitimately, with job titles like client service officer or payment officer, benefits processing.

Manuge says he's looked into between 40 to 100 of the names on the list of people who accessed his file, and wonders why people in Victoria, B.C., Mississauga, Ont., and Winnipeg, were looking at it. Manuge lives in Nova Scotia.

"I have never lived in British Columbia since I've been a client of Veterans Affairs Canada... [There were] hits from members of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board when I had no outstanding appeals," he said.

"People from the minister's office – ministerial inquiries unit [also looked at it]. The title is senior writer. What does a senior writer at the minister’s office have to do looking at my personal medical, psychological, you know, financial information?"

Manuge says he worked out an agreement with a top official at Veterans Affairs and avoided going to the media or filing a lawsuit. He says he had a deal worked out, including a non-disclosure clause.

"A day later my lawyers called me and said, 'no, it went to the Justice Department lawyers and there's no deal. They're essentially, telling us to prove your case before they’ll even consider it'," Manuge said.

"I think four or five months to handle something as serious as this is more than enough."

New privacy measures in place

Sean Casey, the Liberal Party's critic for veterans affairs, said many veterans "suffer great personal tragedy" in the course of their service and should be treated with greater consideration. 

Veterans Affairs Canada "has a responsibility to ensure these records are accessed and shared in a manner which is respectful of veterans and their families," Casey said. "If this is brought into question, the onus is on the minister to reassure us all."

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the department has implemented new privacy measures since news of Bruyea's case broke last year.

"Only the person processing the files are in fact in contact with an individual file for purposes that are related to the file, and in that order, we've implemented a new strategy ... although we want to streamline our process, we want to make sure that privacy is of utmost importance for our veterans and that ... confidentiality is the highest priority," Blaney told Solomon.

Blaney says the department has worked with the privacy commissioner on the issue.

"I'm no doctor. I don't need to have, I would say, any diagnosis on any veterans," he said.

Blaney said the only reason he would need access to a veteran's file is if veterans are asking him questions about their case.