Veterans Affairs Canada is changing the way it writes letters to veterans about disability benefit decisions in the wake of a report by Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent.
In February, VAC announced a program aimed at cutting red tape, promising improvements to “the way we communicate with veterans by simplifying decision letters and creating an easy-to-understand brochure on benefits and services,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney.
Both the Pension Act and the New Veterans Charter require VAC to give reasons for benefit decisions. Yet letters to veterans often lack information or are confusing.
“Veterans have a right to know why and how decisions are made,” Parent said in the report, filed with the government in December and released publicly in February, the day before VAC’s new program announcement.
“The letters concern monetary entitlements that have a direct impact on veterans’ quality of life. Veterans need assurances that their applications for disability benefits have been fully and fairly considered. A detailed decision letter is the essential source of that information,” says the report.
A review of a random sample of 213 letters to veterans written by VAC between 2002 and 2010, revealed none that adequately explained decisions. No reason was given in 15 per cent of the letters, and 65 per cent contained only minimal explanation. Even in the 20 per cent containing much information, letters did not tie together information provided to the decision.
This makes it more difficult for veterans to know whether they should appeal, says Parent. “It troubles me to think that many veterans may be wrongly assessed and do not pursue the matter further because the letter did not reveal where the department’s decision might have been flawed.”
The veteran may appeal entitlement to a benefit, which rests on tying the injury or health condition to military service, or the amount of the benefit, which is determined by assessing how bad the health condition is and how much is due to or exacerbated by military service. Veterans may appeal first to the department, then the Veterans Review and Appeal Board and on to the Federal Court of Canada. The process is “formal, time-consuming, inconvenient, often intimidating to veterans, and may be costly,” says Parent. “Knowing the reasons for decisions is critical to making an informed decision.”
The findings of the report “should not be news,” said Parent, since the Auditor General of Canada brought it to the department’s attention in 1998. VAC then instituted new procedures, including provision of a table of disabilities. Yet a departmental evaluation in 2004-05 noted persistence of overly-complex wording, lack of reasons for decisions, quoting of legislation without explanation, and missing information.
The ombudsman’s report concludes the problem continues due to flaws in generating letters and a misconception in VAC about what constitutes adequate reasons for decisions. It recommends VAC improve the letter-generating procedure to ensure essential information is included and an explanation given in plain language as to how that information was used to arrive at the decision. Manuals and training modules should ensure adjudicators know what information is required for letters and that a quality assurance procedure ensures letters comply.
The ombudsman’s report also points out recommendations would benefit VAC financially by saving time, effort and expense, and would also likely result in fewer reviews and appeals, consequently fewer overturned decisions. It notes that Federal Court appeals may succeed “solely on the grounds of denial of procedural fairness,” when appeal tribunals and courts find reasons for decisions are unclear.