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Vets kept in the dark over medical records and claim applications: ombudsman

OTTAWA - The veterans ombudsman says ex-soldiers and members of the RCMP should no longer be at the mercy of government institutions when it comes to submitting their disability applications.

Guy Parent's new report calls on the federal government to stop keeping veterans in the dark over the medical records used to decide on compensation claims.

Under the current system, when a claim is filed the applicant's medical records are requested from either the military, the RCMP or Library and Archives Canada, if the documents date back decades.

Federal bureaucrats also cherry-pick the records that are deemed relevant, a process known as flagging, before they are sent on to an adjudicator for review.

The applicant never gets a copy of the submitted records, nor the chance to point out whether documents are missing.

Parent says the process infringes on the applicant's ability to substantiate claims, and may even result in a biased decision.

"It's certainly an unfair procedure," Parent said in an interview Monday. "Fairness demands the individual be able to participate, but there is no participation whatsoever."

The ombudsman says it isn't a deliberate attempt to inject bias, as some veterans groups have suggested over the years.

Instead, Parent said, the procedures have evolved over the years, sometimes at the expense of fairness.

"You can't forget there's fairness for the applicant as well as for the administrator, and in this case in point, it seems we've forgotten the applicant's side, which is important," he said.

Although the ombudsman's office did not investigate specific accusations of bias, it has received complaints about the application process since the Harper government established Parent's watchdog agency.

"This is an apprehension of bias," he said, noting that some adjudicator might restrict their review strictly to the flagged documents, where other documents could be pertinent.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney released a statement Monday saying the report was useful.

"We welcome the ombudsman's report and while over 70 per cent of first applications currently receive a favourable decision, we are always looking for ways to improve how we serve veterans," he said.

In his formal response, Blaney promised veterans that if an adjudicator is leaning toward denying an application, they'll contact the individual ahead of time and offer a chance to submit more information.

The federal government will also facilitate, through a website, the means through which ex-soldiers can obtain copies of their service and health records.

It will put the onus on adjudicators to attest that they've read the complete file, and not just "flagged" portions.

"Disability adjudicators are required to consider all evidence, and do everything possible to ensure a fair and accurate decision," said a department statement.

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