Veterans' benefits letters slammed by ombudsman

A review of Veterans Affairs Canada's letters to former soldiers who have been denied disability benefits has revealed a pattern of providing information but no adequate explanation of how the decisions were made.

Review finds no proper explanation of disability benefits decisions

Veterans ombudsman Guy Parent says letters to veterans about their benefits often fail to explain how decisions are made. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A review of Veterans Affairs Canada's letters to former soldiers who have been denied disability benefits has revealed a pattern of providing information but no adequate explanation of how the decisions were made.

"All the letters examined failed a test of adequacy in the reasons given for the decisions," says the country's veterans ombudsman, Guy Parent, in a report released Monday.

He reviewed a random sample of 213 decision letters sent out between 2001 and 2010. While they mostly dealt with denial of benefits, the letters sometimes explained what benefits were granted.

The ombudsman said military veterans have a right to know why and how decisions that affect them are made by the department.

"Our review uncovered a pattern of letters that provided information to applicants about decisions made, the legislation, policies or evidence considered, without providing an adequate explanation of how the decisions were made," he wrote in a letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Stephen Blaney accompanying the report.

"It troubles me to think that many veterans may be wrongly assessed and do not pursue the matter further because the letter did not reveal where the department's decision might have been flawed," Parent wrote in the report.

"It is equally unacceptable for veterans to exercise their appeal rights without having been provided with a clear explanation of the decision."

Specifically, the report says that of the letters reviewed:

  • 15 per cent just stated the assessment result.
  • 65 per cent gave a minimal explanation by stating the assessment result, and referring to legislation, assessment tools and supporting documents.
  • 20 per cent listed detailed information on legislation, assessment tools and supporting documents that would likely let recipients infer "to some extent how the decision was arrived at." 

In an interview with CBC News, Parent said there's currently "no real standard and no way to put in checks and balances" on decisions to deny disability benefits.

"In fact, we've had some complaints over at our office, receiving personal complaints, where our frontline officers themselves have a hard time interpreting the decisions," he said.

Parent told The Canadian Press his report is the start of a wide-ranging look into problems plaguing veterans' care.

"There are so many systematic issues in dealing with Veterans Affairs Canada, it's a good question to say where to start," he said. "We needed to start somewhere, and I think this is a good point."

'I just give up,' veteran says

Larry Mercer, who served in Bosnia and Kosovo, has been fighting Veterans Affairs for years for everything from treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder to foot care. Many of the Nova Scotian's requests have been turned down without explanation.

"I get just totally pissed off, and I just give up and I throw it in the corner, as I did with this one file for a number of years," Mercer said. "And I just … don't know what they want. You give them all the information."

Mercer's wife, Elaine, spent 23 years in the reserves. She does much of the battling on behalf of her husband and said she feels especially for those veterans who have to wade through the bureaucratic maze alone.

"There's a high percentage of them who are separated or divorced that live on their own. They don't have anybody to help them with the paperwork," she said.

Parent said he doesn't think the department is deliberately trying to confuse former soldiers.

"It's a matter of people working individually as opposed to systematically," he said.

The department was first alerted to a problem with its communication regarding decisions in 1998, when it was raised by the auditor general.

An internal evaluation flagged it again in 2004-05, and in August 2010, it was raised once more.

Monday's report made four recommendations:

  • The way the letters are generated needs to be improved.
  • Reasons for decisions need to be in plain English, not medical or legal terminology.
  • Manuals need to be reviewed to make sure adjudicators are aware of what has to be in the letters.
  • A quality assurance system should be established.

A spokesman for Blaney issued the following statement later Monday morning:

"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."

With files from The Canadian Press