By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press October 3, 2012 1:20 PM
OTTAWA - New Democrats have introduced a private member's bill to scrap an oft-maligned board where ex-soldiers can appeal the denial of benefits by the federal government.
MP Peter Stoffer, the party's veterans critic, says the review agency is the No. 1 problem facing individual veterans — and is seen as a place where they have to plead for what is rightfully theirs.
"The problem that many, many veterans face is when they appear before this politically appointed, non-accountable board is that they feel like they're begging for something," Stoffer said Wednesday.
"They feel they're coming cap in hand."
The Veterans Review and Appeal Board has been at the centre of complaints — even from one of its own members — that it disrespects and sometimes belittles veterans who appear before it.
Last winter, several former members of the military described how they'd faced snide, often disrespectful comments from board members who sat in judgment of their claims. The agency was also at the centre of a scandal, where one of its members said his private medical information was spread around to discredit him because he too often sided with veterans.
One ex-soldier, George Villeneuve, says two of his friends committed suicide after being turned down for help.
"A lot of people appearing before a board like that are already pretty ill and they don't have the strength to continue and that's their last resort," said Villeneuve, a 20-year veteran.
"And when they're being denied and turned back, what other resort do they have? Some of them do eventually commit suicide. I know of two personally."
Stoffer said he wouldn't go as far as directly blaming the review board for suicides, but he said he believes that some of the negative decisions have contributed to homelessness among young veterans who spiral out of control when they don't get support.
Villeneuve, who appeared with Stoffer on Parliament Hill, says his claim of post-traumatic stress was turned down at the first stage of the board's review process, even though he says he had all of the appropriate letters from doctors.
He was forced to bring his doctor to the appeal hearing in order to win his case.
The NDP says the board's $11-million annual budget could be plowed back into benefits for ex-soldiers, and that challenges to the initial applications for benefits can be handled through an internal peer-review process.
Earlier this week, the chairman of the review board was before a House of Commons committee defending his use of taxpayers' money for two trips to a lecture series in Britain — $7,285.97 that John Larlee repaid, even though he told MPs it was "worthwhile" and of benefit to him as head of the board.
A spokesman for Veteran Affairs Minister Steven Blaney accused the NDP of wanting to cut direct services to veterans by abolishing the board.
"We are one of the only countries in the world to provide this independent review mechanism for veterans and we are proud to be the only country that also pays the legal fees for veterans who choose to use this review process," Niklaus Schwenker said in an email.
"Our government is determined to protect this independent forum for veterans and we will continue to stand up for veterans by protecting and improving the important benefits they deserve."
Before coming to office, the Conservatives promised at their 2005 convention to disband the board and "replace the membership with qualified medical and military members who are capable of adjudicating appeals on an informed basis rather than a political basis."
They complained that under the Chretien Liberals the board had become a partisan dumping ground.
"The Veterans Review and Appeals Board has been discredited by political patronage," said the party's backgrounder from the 2005-06 election campaign.
The platform promised to "fix" the board.
Stoffer says his private member's bill has the support of veterans groups.
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.