Man who lost wife to cancer fights Veterans Affairs for Agent Orange payment

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HALIFAX - Relatives of a woman who died of a cancer linked to Agent Orange exposure in the 1960s say Ottawa is denying them compensation because she was diagnosed with the lethal disease 12 days after a federal deadline.

Keith Haynes lost his wife, Audrey, on Jan. 31, just a month after the Department of Veterans Affairs issued its final ruling that she would not be eligible for the $20,000 ex gratia payment.

The 54-year-old customer service worker was diagnosed with stage 4 non small cell lung cancer on July 12 after she collapsed at work and was rushed to hospital in Halifax.

Keith Haynes says her cancer was listed on a U.S. medical chart of illnesses the Canadian government recognizes as being linked to the spraying of Agent Orange at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in the 1960s.

But when she applied for the ex gratia payment before her death, Veterans Affairs indicated she didn't qualify because she was diagnosed 12 days after the federally imposed deadline of June 30, 2011, and didn't get her application in until weeks later.

"My wife passed away and, as far as I'm concerned, she was betrayed by her federal government," her husband said from their home on the outskirts of Halifax.

"Who gave them the right and authority and the nerve to put a deadline on the compensation package for people who've been exposed to this chemical?"

Haynes, 54, and his 16-year-old daughter Jessie are fighting to have Veterans Affairs overturn its decision, arguing that there should be no time frame for illnesses associated with the spray program in New Brunswick in 1967 and 1966.

He says his wife's father and a sister both died of the same type of cancer, and another sister has leukemia. Two received the $20,000 payments, while the other died two weeks after her cancer diagnosis.

Audrey Haynes appealed to the department but was told repeatedly that she missed the deadline for the program, which was meant to compensate soldiers and their families who were exposed to the defoliant and later became ill.

In the final correspondence, Veterans Affairs says exemptions can be considered only when circumstances "beyond the control of the applicant" prevent them from submitting an application before June 30.

That apparently did not include her late diagnosis and the six-week stretch of radiation and then chemotherapy she was undergoing to treat cancer that had spread to her brain and liver.

"While I sympathize with your situation, unfortunately we have to follow the criteria," reads the letter from Appeals Unit.

"In light of this criteria, I am unable to accept your application."

A spokeswoman with the department said Friday she couldn't comment on the particular case, adding that each ex gratia payment was decided on a case-by-case basis.

"We went beyond our initial commitment by providing additional funds to the program to ensure all those who are eligible for the ex gratia payment receive it," Janice Summerby said in an email.

She said more than 5,000 applications have been approved and payments totalling more than $100 million have been issued. About $6.6 million of the program funding was not spent by the cutoff date of Dec. 30.

NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer says the department is showing little compassion and making elderly or ill veterans and their families fight for payments he believes they're entitled to.

"I mean, where's the humanity here? Where's the heart in this place?" he said in an interview.

"When I listen to these folks, you just hear the desperation in their voices and all they're asking for is help and this government turns around and says, 'Oh, these are the deadlines. That's it.'"

Stoffer, who has a news conference with Haynes scheduled Monday, said the entire compensation program has been handled poorly since it was first floated by the Conservatives in the 2006 election campaign.

Ottawa reversed its decision to reject compensation for dozens of people at the end of December after the Veterans ombudsman publicly rebuked the government for its handling of the file.

Agent Orange was part of a toxic cocktail of herbicides sprayed at CFB Gagetown in 1966 and 1967 by the U.S. military, with permission from Canada.

It's now known that exposure can lead to skin disorders, liver problems and certain types of cancers.