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VVi 25 Jun 2020

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Twice-forgotten soldier sues Veterans Affairs over 'abandoned' case file

Critics say Charles Scott's case describes an overwhelmed VAC unable to keep up with veterans' pleas for help


Murray Brewster · CBC News ·
Posted: Jun 23, 2020 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: June 23

VVi 25 Jun 2020db
 

Former master corporal Charles Scott in Kabul in 2004. 'I missed out on a lot, just like a lot of other Canadians.' (Contributed)

When former master corporal Charles Scott left the army in 2008, a note was scribbled in his Veterans Affairs file warning that he faced a significant risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

The warning was never followed up on by the department; no one ever contacted him about it and no one ever arranged for treatment. Scott himself didn't know about the assessment until more than a decade later, after he applied under privacy law to see his file — and several years after he had sought treatment for PTSD on his own.

It wouldn't be the last time the former combat soldier and army intelligence operative, who served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Bosnia and Afghanistan, fell through the cracks of the bureaucracy.

Scott launched a lawsuit in Federal Court last month accusing Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) of negligence and of violating federal law (the Veterans Well-being Act) in its handling of his file.

"It gives me no pleasure to sue Canada, a country that I joined to serve for benefits that impact me and my very young family," Scott, 45, told CBC News.

Scott said that his Veterans Affairs case manager stopped returning his calls and emails in the winter of 2019, just as the Liberal government was preparing to launch its long-awaited pension-for-life plan for Canada's former soldiers.

Buried and forgotten

What Scott didn't know at the time — and what it took an access-to-information request filed by him with the federal government to fully explain — is that his case manager had been gone from the department since early 2019. Scott's file, and possibly those of others, lay buried and forgotten in the Edmonton VAC office — and no one noticed until Scott called the veterans' crisis line in late April 2019.

"My file was abandoned and not handed over," he said. "The veteran team service manager in Edmonton did not hand over my file to another case manager."

As a result, Scott said, he missed his chance to lock in the supplementary career replacement benefits which had been a feature of Veterans Affairs' old benefits system before being phased out with the introduction of the current Liberal government's revised system.

He was forced to join the new system of benefits — a system that, prior to its introduction on April 1, 2019, the Parliamentary Budget Officer said was less generous than the old system to the most severely disabled veterans.

Scott's statement of claim doesn't cite a sum at this point, but he estimates the federal government's error has cost him as much as $1,000 per month.


Former master corporal Charles Scott in 2019. (Contributed)

Scott, who worked for several years as a federal occupational health and safety inspector before PTSD overwhelmed his life, said he did not want to sue the federal government but was left with no alternative.

"I have made every attempt to contact the minister of Veterans Affairs. I have made every attempt to contact members of Parliament without success," he said.

'It's not fair'

Critics tracking the veterans file — like NDP MP Rachel Blaney — say Scott's experience fits with what they've heard from other veterans, and describes an overtaxed Veterans Affairs bureaucracy that can't keep up with veterans' pleas for help.

"It's absolutely unacceptable," said Blaney. "We have heard from folks working at VAC they have a lot of concerns about this very thing happening and that they're under-resourced in terms of staffing to deal with these issues.

"It's not fair that our veterans are the ones paying for the consequence of that."

It's also a perfect illustration of what the Liberal government was warned about when it implemented the overhaul of veterans benefits, Blaney said, adding the government should have "listened more closely to the people who are analyzing the system."

The Liberal government under Paul Martin proposed in 2005 to replace the decades-old system of veterans benefits under the Pension Act with a new system called the New Veterans Charter.

The subsequent Conservative government under Stephen Harper adopted the charter, then tweaked it in response to protests from veterans. The campaigning Liberals promised in 2015 to restore to veterans a choice between a pension for life and a lump-sum payment as compensation for service-related injuries.

But before the Liberal plan could be implemented, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux wrote a report warning that while the plan would be slightly more generous than the system it replaced, it still would leave many in worse financial shape they would have been under the old pre-Veterans Charter system.

"From the perspective of the veteran, virtually all clients would be better off if they received the benefits of the (pre-2006) Pension Act," Giroux's report says.

'I missed out on a lot'

Scott is bitter.

"All of my occupational injuries and illnesses are pre-2006," he said. "I missed out on the Pension Act. I missed out on those financial services. I missed out on a lot, just like a lot of other Canadians."

VAC spokespeople won't speak to the particulars of Scott's case, citing privacy protections. They also haven't explained why Scott's file was allowed to languish, or say how many other soldiers might be affected by forgotten files.

VAC spokesperson Marc Lescoutre told CBC News in an email that, normally, the department "proactively" reassigns files as required — when a case manager is set to retire soon, for example.

When a case manager leaves unexpectedly, or calls in sick, the on-duty case manager is supposed to take over the manager's files.

The Forgotten: Afghan-Canadian combat advisers seek help and recognition

As for the problems with the department's services for veterans and the pension plan, another VAC spokesperson, John Embury, issued a statement noting that the "Pension for Life" program represented a $3.6 billion federal investment, and citing the government's promise to review how the "Pension for Life" plan is being administered.

"As directed by both the prime minister and the minister of Veterans Affairs, VAC is thoroughly reviewing the implementation of Pension for Life, and may recommend changes, where needed, to improve the outcomes and experiences of veterans and their families," said the statement.

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Federal government tosses dozens of claims from vets who died without survivors

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Published Saturday, May 16, 2020 8:41AM EDT Last Updated Saturday, May 16, 2020 9:04AM EDT

VVi 25 May 2020 db

veterans
A sign is placed on a truck windshield as members of the advocacy group Banished Veterans protest outside the Veterans Affairs office in Halifax on Thursday, June 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

It wasn't the phone call Robert Nordlund's family had been expecting but one that dozens of other families across the country receive each year: Veterans Affairs Canada was tossing the deceased Mountie's application for disability benefits because he didn't have a surviving spouse or dependant child.

That was despite the fact that his application had sat in a backlog for two years, during which time both he and his wife died.

Nordlund had spent 36 years in uniform before retiring about nine years ago as a sergeant in the RCMP. A former rugby player for Team Canada in the 1970s, he was a tough, quiet Mountie who had loved nothing more than being in his cruiser patrolling the roads of British Columbia.

Following his retirement, however, Nordlund had started to experience mood swings and depression. There was also growing hip pain, which doctors later traced to either one of the two car accidents he'd had as a Mountie or from sitting in his car for years with a holstered gun.

"He was not sort of the type to make (disability) claims," Scott Nordlund recalls of his father. "He was kind of a tough old guy. So we always thought his hip was hurting but it got really evident about five years ago and he was like: 'Oh, it's fine. Don't worry about it."'

Nordlund did eventually submit a claim to Veterans Affairs Canada for assistance and compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder, which was approved. Then, more than two years ago, he submitted a claim for the hip.

And then he waited. And waited.

When Nordlund died of lung cancer in November at the age of 72, his application was still waiting to be assessed by Veterans Affairs. Initially, his family was told that it would continue to be processed. But then came the call on April 21: the claim was being tossed out.

"When my sister got the phone call, she said: 'I guess they were just waiting for him to die off before they put the claim through,"' Scott Nordlund says. "It's a unique situation obviously, but at the same time, you just have to wonder."

Veterans Affairs would not comment on Nordlund's specific case, citing privacy laws.

However, it confirmed that 95 applications for disability benefits were withdrawn in the last fiscal year with similar circumstances to Nordlund's claim: the military veteran or retired RCMP officer had died without an eligible surviving spouse or dependant child.

"If a veteran or RCMP member with an eligible survivor or dependant applied before their death, the application would continue and a decision would be rendered," Veterans Affairs spokesman Marc Lescoutre said in an email.

"If the applicant dies before a decision is made and there is no eligible survivor or dependant, the estate is not entitled to be paid and VAC stops processing the application."

The rule, which Lescoutre said is contained in legislation, applies even if the application has been sitting in the queue for longer than 16 weeks, which is the standard by which Veterans Affairs is supposed to complete 80 per cent of all applications.

Forty-one of the 95 applications that were withdrawn last year had been waiting more than 16 weeks to be processed. The department had a total backlog of 44,000 applications for disability benefits at the end of September, a number that has continued to increase every year.

Scott Nordlund questions why claims that have been waiting years to be processed are treated the same as those only recently submitted.

"Obviously it makes sense if the person is on their death bed and they decide to put a claim in at the last second," he says. "But not if the person has been sitting in the queue for X number of years, right?

"When my dad put the claim in, he had stage 1 cancer. So between the claim and his death obviously from cancer, you had a full cancer illness that went through its entire course before they even touched (the application) and it was still in the queue. So it's like, 'Come on, give me a break."'

The fact that his mother Elizabeth Nordlund was alive when his father initially applied for compensation for his bad hip also raises questions and concerns. She died of cancer in July.

"So if she was still alive and had held on, they still would have processed that claim," says Scott Nordlund. "So it's seems a little bit arbitrary."

Lescoutre said when the department learns a veteran is facing medical risks, their claim can be fast-tracked.

Scott Nordlund, who can appreciate the difficult task Veterans Affairs staff face in assessing claims, says his family did not expect much money from his father's claim for a bad hip. Perhaps enough to help with the funeral costs. But at this point, it's a matter of principle.

"Our situation is a little bit easier where it wasn't going to be probably a significant amount of money," he says. "I feel more bad for a situation where the person dies suddenly and their kids just turned 18 and entered university and are no longer a dependant."

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Letter - Canvassing Other Veterans

VVi 14 May 2020

To the Canadian Veteran community,

Hello, my name is Charles Scott. I served Canada for eleven years as an infantryman with 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and also as an army intelligence operator. I deployed operationally to the Former Yugoslavia (Bosnia) and Afghanistan. I reside in Edmonton, Alberta with my wife and young family (2, 6 & 11 yrs old).

The reason for my public post is to canvass other veterans about the recent Veterans Ombudsman report “ Financial Compensation for Canadian Veterans, a comparative analysis of benefits regimes”. In this report, the Veterans Ombudsman identifies the inequality of receiving a Diminished Earning Capacity (DEC) prior to April 1, 2019 when Pension for Life rolled out (PFL). The removal of the Career Impact Allowance (CIA) and Career Impact Allowance Supplement (CIA-Sup) affects the most injured veterans. Perhaps surprisingly to some, I fall into that statistic. I am also a veteran who has injury claims under all three of the veteran legislations (pension Act, Veterans Well-Being Act (NVC) and Pension for Life).

I fall into the category of veterans who are entitled to receive the Career Impact Allowance (CIA-Sup), however, my case manager mismanaged my Veterans Affairs Canada file AND terminated employment in the weeks before April 1, 2019 when Pension for Life was implimented. It was not until April 24, 2019 that I was informed my case manager had left Veterans Affairs and my file and all applications were abandoned (during a legislation change).

Despite being assigned a new case manager who worked tirelessly on my file, we were forced to resubmit a new Diminished Earning Capacity referral with Career Impact Allowance Supplement under the new legislation. Since then, I have been engaged in appeal after appeal with VAC to correct the wrongdoings. I am currently being denied access to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB) as they do not have jurisdiction over DEC and CIA benefits.

My complaint is registered with the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman and I await their analysis. Due to time constraints, my only avenues of approach are to give up or take the matter to court.

I have obtained 2300 pages of Access to Information and Privacy Act documents identifying numerous errors. Internal Veterans Affairs Canada emails identify management personnel who knew of the wrongdoings and placed the onus on myself to plead my case. Despite the evidence provided in my appeals, Veterans Affairs Canada continues to gaslight my concerns and there is no other internal recourses available.

I have exhausted all means to resolve these matters with Veterans Affairs Canada with no success. Veterans Affairs Canada is failing to meet my needs as an injured/ill veteran.

What I am requesting from the Canadian veteran community is to canvass folks who may have had to fight for lost CIA Sup benefits before the change to PFL? There is an internal Veterans Affairs Canada email that was sent from mid-management to all Veteran Service Teams across Canada (Case Managers) days before April 1, 2019. This email directed case managers to provide Diminished Earning Capacity decisions to veterans who were; close to requiring one, were forecasted to need one in the future and waived criteria such as being on the Rehab Program as some examples. They did this to secure the soon to be removed CIA and CIA-Sup. I am looking for a copy of this email without having to wait for Access to Information.

The current situation; I am consulting with my legal counsel on how to proceed. We have two weeks left to file a statement of claim in court. My member of parliament is making a last attempt to reason with the Minister of Veterans Affairs. If you are able to assist me obtain the March 2019 email or have fought this battle with Veterans Affairs Canada, please reach out to me, we are not alone.

Thank you for sharing in my vulnerability.

Warm regards,

Charles Scott MCpl (Ret’d)
Edmonton, Alberta
 
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Liberals defends $4M transfer from operating budget amid veterans' backlog fury

The Canadian Press

Publishing date: March 10, 2020 • 1 minute read


Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence Lawrence MacAulay responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on January 27, 2020. Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is defending its choice to take more than $4 million from Veterans Affairs Canada’s operating budget at a time when the department is struggling with a backlog of tens of thousands of disability applications from injured ex-soldiers.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay says the money moved went mainly to providing emergency assistance to at-risk veterans, including some who are homeless or in crisis situations.

But MacAulay, who was grilled over the transfer during a parliamentary committee appearance this morning, later sidestepped questions from The Canadian Press about why the government didn’t add more money from the federal treasury instead.

The department’s top civil servant, retired general Walter Natynczyk, told the committee the transfer did not negatively impact efforts to address the backlog of 44,000 applications, a number that has steadily grown for the past few years.

Conservative and NDP MPs were unimpressed with the government’s explanation, questioning why it took more resources from the department’s operating budget as the backlog continues to grow, instead adding more money to deal with the problem.

Opposition parties also called on the government to produce a detailed plan for eliminating the backlog, echoing a call from veterans ombudsman Craig Dalton last month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2020.

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Veterans ombudsman calls it quits after 18 months


Lt.-Col. Craig Dalton, chief of staff for Task Force Kandahar, tells reporters in Kandahar, Afghanistan that Canada has given command of Kandahar city to the U.S., Thursday, July 15, 2010. Veterans ombudsman Craig Dalton is calling it quits after only 18 months on the job.Bill Graveland / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian Press, Lee Berthiaume
May 11, 2020 2:48 PM EDT Last Updated May 11, 2020 4:35 PM EDT

VVi 14 May 2020

OTTAWA — Veterans ombudsman Craig Dalton is calling it quits, leaving former service members without a key advocate at a time when many are worried about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their requests for assistance from the federal government.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced Dalton’s departure Monday, saying the former army colonel was beginning “a new chapter in his distinguished career.”

The announcement caught many within the veterans’ community and even some within the ombudsman’s office by surprise, as Dalton had spent only 18 months on the job.

It also raised questions about why Dalton, who previously served in Afghanistan and commanded Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, decided to leave.

The ombudsman’s office said Dalton, the third person to serve as veterans ombudsman since the office was created in 2007 and whose last day is Friday, was not available for an interview.

Dalton’s predecessors, retired colonel Pat Stogran and retired chief warrant officer Guy Parent, served as ombudsman for three and nine years, respectively. Dalton began his time in the role in November 2018.

While the office has helped some veterans access services and benefits, it has also been criticized for years for its lack of independence from government. The ombudsman reports to the minister of veterans affairs rather than Parliament.

There have also been concerns about the office’s narrow mandate, which largely focuses on reviewing individual cases in which veterans are denied benefits rather than studying and addressing systemic problems in the system.

Dalton echoed some of those sentiments in a February interview with The Canadian Press, in which he specifically took issue with the lack of independence within the office — and worried about the effect that has on its trust and credibility within the veterans’ community.

“Those that are recognized as being the most effective and being true ombuds offices are all independent in their structure,” he said.

“They have true independence. And that really matters when it comes to trust and even the perception of independence matters when it comes to trust.”

He also urged the federal government to conduct a review of the office’s mandate. He noted it had not been updated since the position was created, even though the intention at the time was to take a close look at it every five years.

Dalton’s decision to leave comes at an unusual time, given the federal government is currently consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Veterans Affairs Canada has been struggling to address a backlog of 44,000 applications for assistance from disabled veterans.
Many veterans and their advocates worry that backlog has only grown because of the pandemic.

Brian Forbes, chair of the National Council of Veterans’ Associations, which represents dozens of veterans’ organizaton across Canada, nevertheless urged the government to use Dalton’s departure as an opportunity to finally review the ombudsman’s mandate.

Dalton “was doing a pretty decent job,” Forbes said. “He was consulting well with the veterans’ community and stakeholders and put out some pretty decent reports. But the reality is the veterans ombudsman’s office doesn’t have sufficient independence.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.

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