By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News February 4, 2013 8:09 PM
OTTAWA — The Harper government unveiled new measures Monday to help serving and retired military and RCMP members seeking disability benefits after an ombudsman found veterans’ rights were being violated through a bureaucratic push for greater efficiency.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said officials have been directed to be more inclusive after veterans’ ombudsman Guy Parent slammed what he called an “unfair” process that keeps veterans “in the dark” when applying for a disability benefits.
“To best serve veterans, we are making the right decision as quickly as possible,” Blaney said in a statement. “Veterans can be assured that every application is reviewed and fully considered to ensure a fair outcome.”
Parent, however, said only time will tell whether the changes will make a difference.
“A plan is just a plan until there is action,” he said in an interview.
In a report tabled in Parliament on Monday, Parent found Veterans Affairs officials have taken it upon themselves to collect information for retired and serving military personnel and Mounties applying for disability assistance.
This includes gathering service and health records taken from Library and Archives and Canadian Forces bases across the country or RCMP headquarters.
Officials also routinely flag aspects of an applicant’s service and health history before the information arrives on an adjudicator’s desk, Parent found, even though they don’t have the authority to do so.
The idea was to speed up the application process and make the veterans’ disability system more efficient, Parent says, but the result actually undermines an applicant’s right to a fair and impartial hearing.
“Efficiency and effectiveness cannot take away the rights of an individual,” Parent told Postmedia News, “and that’s very important.”
The ombudsman found veterans and serving members are not told by officials what information is being considered when an adjudicator is deciding whether to approve their disability pension requests.
“We were also informed (by officials) that operational practice is to not consider service and health records if they are supplied by applicants,” his report reads.
This is directly at odds with the law, which states that it is an applicant’s responsibility to provide information backing a request for disability benefits.
Parent also found that the practice of flagging files “may introduce bias” into the process.
The ombudsman acknowledged Veterans Affairs has a responsibility to ensure information included in a disability benefits application is accurate and not tampered with, and that there are other cost and time advantages to having officials collect records themselves.
However, he said the practice of not telling applicants what information has been gathered and refusing to consider records from applicants themselves effectively shifts responsibility for providing evidence to support a claim from the veterans, as intended by the law, to bureaucrats.
“The application process is one of the most important steps that a veteran can take so they can obtain benefits from Veterans Affairs Canada,” Parent said. “And although a process can be efficient and it can be effective, it needs to be fair as well.”
Blaney welcomed Parent’s report and said a number of changes will be made to the process to make sure veterans aren’t excluded from the application process, and that they know what information is being considered in deciding whether to grant them benefits.
At the same time, Blaney defended the government’s record, noting that 74 per cent of the 33,000 applications for disability benefits received last year were approved the first time around.
A spokesman confirmed, however, that the figure was 85 per cent after appeals were factored in, which means more than 3,000 applications were initially rejected but ended up being overturned.
Parent said he took issue with the assertion that more than 70 per cent of applicants have received a “favourable decision.”
“The unfortunate part is the veterans never knew the evidence in front of the board, so it’s pretty hard to comment on whether a decision is right or not,” he said.
“ ‘Favourable’ is a strong word because in some cases a decision might be considered favourable by the department but might not be up to the expectations of the applicant who expected maybe a higher percentage of a pension.”
And he added that while disclosure of information to applicants may require a bit more time at the beginning of the process, the overall process will be more efficient by reducing the need for reviews and appeals.
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