01/03/2012 04:30 EST | Updated 03/04/2012 05:12 EST

Ombudsman pushes for veterans to have access to benefits info online

OTTAWA - A software program that could end much angry debate between injured soldiers and Veterans Affairs Canada has been stuck in the federal bureaucracy for over a year.

Canada's veterans watchdog has been pushing for the application to be made available online so former members of the military and RCMP can calculate their individual eligibility and accessibility to the department's Byzantine series of programs.

"We're very active in trying to get Veterans Affairs Canada to modernize its ways, if you wish," Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

The relationship between the department and its clients has at times been poisonous. Some veterans approach the system with an ingrained suspicion, while others have had their hopes dashed by indifference — or at times — the outright incompetence of bureaucrats.

Last year, it was revealed department officials went years without informing nearly 1,000 of the most severely injured veterans they were eligible for what's known as an exceptional incapacity allowance — a stipend that for some would have meant up to $1,000 per month. The situation wasn't corrected until Parent's office stepped in.

Having better information at their fingertips could only help those who approach the department, said Parent.

"It is a fantastic piece of work that helps identify a veteran — or the family of a veteran — by service, and it can lead you right to the programs, benefits that are accessible to them."

The software program, developed by two officials in ombudsman's office, was originally intended for agency staff so they could quickly determine whether a complainant had a case and where they fit in to the system.

It is similar in complexity to online applications long in use by banks and insurance companies.

After going through several revisions and updates through the years, the navigator program was handed over to the department in 2010 in the hope it would be put on the government's website.

But so far, it has been the subject only of a pilot program for the department's internal use at a regional office in Winnipeg, and was recently made available to call-centre staff.

The plan is to roll it out to the entire department early this year, said veterans affairs spokesman Simon Forsyth.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney is said to be enthusiastic about its potential and wants to see it in the hands of the public, said Parent.

Forsyth didn't specify when that might happen and critics were skeptical whether it'll ever go that far.

"It's money. You know it and I know it," said Michael Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

"They're cutting half a billion dollars from the budget. Here's a good idea, put forth in good faith by the ombudsman, and yet they're sitting on their hands."

It was revealed last fall that the department was planning to cut its budget by $226 million in the coming year because it anticipates it'll be dealing with fewer claims from a dwindling number of Second World War and Korean War veterans.

In addition, the Harper government has asked all departments to cut between five and 10 per cent from their bottom lines, something that Blais estimates would lop another quarter of a billion dollars out of Veterans Affairs.

Blais said better educated veterans means there will be more uptake on programs, and that will result in some impact on the federal treasury.

"Anything with money, it's like pulling teeth without anesthetic," he said. "They just don't want to give it up."

As proof, he pointed to the recent battle over Agent Orange compensation, where people whose claims had been denied on technicalities were given an 11th-hour reprieve directly from the minister.

Having an impartial benefits calculator in place could mean a more speedy review and would have certainly prevented disabled veterans from losing out on their incapacity allowance, said Blais.

Parent said the explanation he's received for the delay is that department staff is still getting "comfortable" with the system, even though the ombudsman's office has been using it for years.

"They reviewing a lot of the policies and procedures right now," he said. "We keep pushing them. And the minister, of course, keeps pushing them because I know the minister wants it available to the public as soon as it is possible."

Forsyth, and other department officials who spoke on background, said one hiccup was the necessity to translate the system into French.

The ombudsman's office has been an incubator for technical ideas to modernize the lumbering veterans bureaucracy.

Parent said it pioneered the use of so-called Wiki system of handling data that allows employees to modify, add and delete information via a web browser, and now is working a comparison chart that helps track benefits under both National Defence and Veterans Affairs.