OTTAWA – The veterans ombudsman says he’s disappointed with the Harper government’s response to his call to treat ex-soldiers and members of RCMP fairly when they apply for disability benefits.
Guy Parent’s latest report says veterans should not be left at the mercy of government institutions when they submit claims, and the federal government should stop keeping applicants in the dark over the medical records used to decide those claims.
Soon after the report was tabled Monday, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney responded with a series of changes, including more consultation with applicants whose claims are in jeopardy of being denied.
But Parent, in a blog post Tuesday, said the changes “fall short of ensuring procedural fairness” to veterans.
Under the old system, when a benefits claim is filed, the applicant’s medical records are requested from either the military, the RCMP or Library and Archives Canada.
Federal bureaucrats who retrieve the records are allowed sift through them and pick ones deemed relevant before they are sent to adjudication.
The applicants never see records submitted on their behalf, nor can they challenge them if something is missing.
A spokesman for Blaney, Niklaus Schwenker, said the government launched a comprehensive plan to address the ombudsman’s report, with clear instructions for department officials that requires them to “reach out” to veterans.
“Through this plan, the minister clearly directed that moving forward, disability adjudicators must certify that they have reviewed all documentation submitted to them and must reach out to veterans to ask them to submit any information they have to help render a positive decision,” he said.
But Parent says a telephone call is not an adequate substitute to receiving a copy of the evidence.
“It is difficult to imagine how useful a telephone conversation could be if both parties do not have the same information in front of them,” he wrote.
Blaney proudly boasted in the House of Commons on Monday that 70 per cent of all disability applications are accepted on initial review by his department.
But Parent said that figure includes applications where only a partial disability payment is granted.
The policy of only notifying people who are about to be denied means those who receive partial payments will still be left in the dark by the Harper government.
“Why would an applicant who is informed that he is entitled to only one fifth of a full disability pension or award not be given the opportunity to challenge the evidence available to adjudicators before the decision is made?”
The federal government also plans to help ex-soldiers obtain their own copies of service and health records through formal information applications.
Veterans Affairs will also ask adjudicators to declare they’ve read the complete file, and not just select portions.