The case for a VAC ombudsman

By Sean Bruyea-ESPRIT DE CORPS- July 2005-pg.13 

Canada declared 2005 the year of the Veteran in honour of the almost 700,000 veterans and approximately 80,000 active members of the Canadian Forces. On March 30, 2005, Andre Marin left the office of Ombudsman for National Defence and the Canadian Forces after almost seven years of groundbreaking work.

The irony is that healthy, (for the most part) employable soldiers in DND have an independent ombudsman while disabled and often unemployable veterans do not.

This “gap in oversight” did not escape the attention of Mr. Marin: “Denying to veterans access to the Ombudsman … makes little practical sense. The door should not close on them once the scope of their problem reaches into the realm of Veterans Affairs Canada.”

This reality appears lost on many in the bureaucracy of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). When someone has been disabled as a result of his/her service to Canada while serving in the Canadian Forces, he or she has a right to assistance.

In the early 1990s, processing times for favourable decisions at VAC were approaching 18 months. This sparked a public scandal resulting in a complete overhaul of the department in 1995. Although VAC has since accelerated claim process times, the real story is not quite that simple.

The modern disabled veteran often suffers from complex medical conditions with which VAC is unfamiliar. The result: initial pension awards are often far below the reality of the disabilities suffered. Minimal awards of 20 per cent or $400/ month have been quite common for disabilities that have rendered a veteran unemployable. As a consequence, psychologically and/or physically disabled veterans are forced to enter an indescribably demoralizing review and appeal process, frequently requiring three to five years or more before receiving adequate compensation.

In spite of Auditor General reports, many veterans who receive unfavourable decisions are still being directed to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB) when other more efficient, less costly, and less traumatic avenues are available.

VRAB heard 6,500 cases last year, 3,400 of which received favourable decisions. Impressive numbers, but what about the more than 3,000 other cases?

A VAC ombudsman would report on systemic problems in the department, which resulted in the veteran being forced into the difficult VRAB process in the first place. An ombudsman would have the authority to investigate complaints where other mechanisms are not available, while cutting through much of the bureaucracy for the sake of not just an individual case but for the benefit of hundreds, if not thousands, of veterans to follow.

Unfortunately, the 210,000 clients of VAC do not have an ombudsman to protect them from this confusing bureaucratic steamroller. Much of the process at VAC and VRAB is far from transparent or rife with apparent conflicts of interest. For example, a veteran is represented at the VRAB hearings by a lawyer working for and responsible to VAC, consulting files maintained by National Defence and defending the case to a board, whose members are recommended by VAC. It is in this environment that an ombudsman’s office would excel.

Ironically, the main obstacle to the creation of a VAC ombudsman comes from the Royal Canadian Legion, which claims it is the only ombudsman for all veterans. Andre Marin made a distinction between the strong advocacy of the Legion and the legal mandate of an ombudsman: “To be sure, the Canadian Legion is a magnificent organization … but it is not an institutionalized ombudsman. It does not have the powers of proactive investigation, the resources, nor the professional staff, nor does it have the power to report officially to the government and the public.”

Approximately 70 to 80 per cent of veterans do not officially belong to the Legion nor to any of the more than 100 Canadian veteran organisations. A VAC ombudsman would not replace any of these organizations, but would coexist along side them, likely enhancing the value of all while simultaneously increasing the efficiency of VAC and VRAB.

Veterans Affairs regularly responds to the veteran pleading his or her case publicly with claims that they are isolated incidents while quickly moving to put out the fire. Perhaps VAC should stop putting out fires and go after the guy with the matches.

This is what an ombudsman does best.

Sean Bruyea served in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and is a long-time advocate for the rights of disabled veterans

COPYRIGHT 2005 S.R. Taylor Publishing