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Ombudsman's report gives government an F!

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Author Topic: Ombudsman's report gives government an F!  (Read 506 times)
Mike Blais CD
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« on: May 01, 2009, 09:11:00 am »

The country's first veterans ombudsman has given his performance so far a failing grade and warns he is facing an uphill battle in helping veterans who aren't happy with the treatment they are receiving from government.

Public service red tape has delayed hiring employees for ombudsman Pat Stogran's office in Ottawa. At the same time, the office has found itself swamped with complaints from veterans.

Since being named ombudsman in the fall of 2007, Stogran's office has had 5,000 inquiries from veterans, of which 1,700 have proceeded as case files to be investigated. Those involve a variety of complaints with many focused on the type of benefits or services that veterans have received from Veterans Affairs Canada.

Stogran's staff totals 27 people, including administrative staff, and he hopes to soon hire three more investigators.

But in a candid interview with the Citizen, he says he isn't happy with his progress so far. "I'm giving myself a failing report card because I haven't effected the kind of change that I was hoping for," said Stogran, a retired colonel.

Stogran said his staff has been making inroads on simpler cases such as tracking down cheques for veterans or determining why the Department of Veterans Affairs has not answered their letters.

The office acts as an intermediary between the veterans and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).

"We've done a lot of stuff under the radar dealing with individual issues and mediating between frustrated VAC clients and the department," he noted. "So that's going, and we've got a good grip on the issues we're going to be tackling.

"But it's been problematic hiring our investigators, who are going to be attacking the more complex issues, things that are tied up in regulations and legislation," he added.

Although Stogran's office selects who it will hire, the administration for that is handled by Veterans Affairs' human resources branch. "Those channels of communication didn't exist, so it was difficult to get us into the Rolodex and get them proactive in contacting us when there were delays," he noted. "It's been a learning process between myself and the people in VAC to streamline it, but I think we're on the right path right now."

Stogran's office has a budget of $6.3 million a year, of which $1.2 million is used for overhead for the organization. Another $1.3 million goes to Veterans Affairs to pay for support it provides to the ombudsman's office.

In the past, Stogran has acknowledged that some veterans believe he has a large amount cash to provide to individuals to fix specific problems, as well as the power to overturn decisions made by Veterans Affairs. He does not have such money or powers. Other veterans have questioned the value of an ombudsman if that individual's office can't adjudicate on their complaints.

But Stogran, who has the position until November 2010, said his job is to determine where the system is not working and point that out to Veterans Affairs.

He has recently been looking into the issue of homeless veterans, visiting shelters to determine what Veterans Affairs has been doing about the problem. "We just went to a place and there was no evidence that VAC had been there," Stogran said.

He said no one knows how many veterans have become homeless, but it is a growing problem in the U.S. and Britain.

Stogran said he was advised to close his doors for a year on complaints so the office could get up to speed. But he decided that since the veterans were counting on having an ombudsman, he couldn't do that. Stogran now acknowledges he "bit off more than I could chew."

He describes the job of setting up an office while trying to deal with a high volume of complaints and inquiries as similar to "changing the wheel on a moving car."

Heather MacDonald, Veterans Affairs Canada's spokeswoman, noted that the department's human resources branch has worked closely with Stogran and meets regularly with his management team on staffing.

"While some processes are ongoing, the majority of staffing actions are completed," she stated in an e-mail. "Since the office of the ombudsman was a newly created organization, we worked with the ombudsman to develop all aspects from the ground up, including hiring staff."

Stogran said he hopes to ramp up his efforts by the summer with the launch of a new website and consultation process for veterans. His plan is to highlight on the website specific problems that veterans are facing, in the hopes that a public outcry will cause Veterans Affairs to make changes or deal with the issues at the heart of the complaints.

"VAC is great at celebrating the huge accomplishments and the huge sacrifices of our veterans," Stogran explained. "What doesn't really get out is the dark side of being a vet."

He notes that there are many employees in Veterans Affairs who want the various problems with red tape and other issues to be made public. "I have encountered a lot of VAC employees who have their heart in the right places, but they have to follow the rules," he explained. "They're hoping we can effect change because they're the ones who have to go to bed at night having turned down the veterans."

Stogran, who served in Afghanistan, also said the country should prepare for an influx of veterans issues caused by that war.

He recalled the view of one severely injured Afghan veteran.

"He said there's going to be a bow wave of people who, as they have trouble reintegrating into society, are going to land on VAC's lap," noted Stogran. "And I'm quite sure that is what will happen."
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« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2009, 11:37:32 am »

I hope vets can be patient and in this way help the Col and his people get a grip on the problems.. i know it is difficult , when one has been ignored for years, or put off entirely.. i wish the Col luck, and thanks him for his serious efforts.. there must be light at the end of the tunnel..rong
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« Reply #2 on: May 06, 2009, 06:08:46 pm »

When I first became aware of the limited mandate and authority of the Office of Veterans Ombudsman, I was disappointed, to say the least, but not at all surprised.  The Dept of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and The Royal Canadian Legion fought against the establishment of the office, as did many on The Hill.

Once it became apparent that it was inevitable, DVA worked even harder to make the OVO a lame duck. No matter who was appointed, it was clear to me, the hired would be a DVA lap dog. I couldnít have been more wrong.

I went to a Halifax town hall meeting where Mr. Stogran met with a crowd of frustrated and sceptical veterans, I being one of them. He was there for hours and repeatedly invited attendees to provide their contact information to one of his staff; who he had introduced to the crowd at the beginning of his ĎLeave No One Behindí presentation.

I had my guard up as Iím sure others did: We would not be swayed by a wonderful orator after years of broken promises, and fighting VAC bureaucracy.

When I was invited to become part of the Advisory Committee to Mr. Stogran, I jumped at the chance to do more for the Veterans Community and to be on the Ďinsideí. So, I can speak from experience and direct contact with the man, his staff and the office.

As far as the man is concerned, I am very pleased with him as our Ombudsman and this endorsement did not come easy. And I will not hesitate to point out any fair criticisms because the man is not egocentric; he welcomes it so that he may improve which leads to helping the veterans.

I have never seen the man waffle, like Mr Thompson, Minister of Veterans Affairs and those of Mr Thompsonís ilk. Mr. Stogran has been straight up with the media and the veterans. I am in awe of his courage in admitting his shortcomings. How many bureaucrats or politicians have ever or would ever do that? How many would give them selves a failing grade?  Not a one. They are more skilled at covering their asses.

Considering the obstacles placed in front of the man and office, I find it amazing that the office has been able to accomplish what it has. Thirty-Four percent of complaints brought to closure is nothing short of a miracle, considering his limited resources. Thatís one third of the files brought to closure from an office that was set up from scratch, in a constant state of flux and with administrative Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDís) VAC set in its path.

For Mr. Thompson to say Mr. Stogran is insensitive to veterans clearly shows Mr. Thompsonís inability to fully grasp the plight of the very veterans his department is mandated by legislation to assist.  His asinine statement of Mr Stogranís insensitivity is a projection of his own demonstrated and documented lack of sensitivity to the veteran.
Considering The Department of Veterans Affairs has been around longer than 18 months, it is they who should have addressed the issue of homelessness with their greater resources. Obviously, the first complaint inflow of unsatisfied veterans to the OVO indicates that the government is not doing everything in its power to help struggling veterans, contrary to the Ministerís claim. Read: lawsuits and Bill C-201 and other motions brought before parliament to address veterans issues.

Mr. Thompsonís statement shows how uninformed he is about the homeless, as well. Being on the fringe of society for years, most are unwilling and often times fearful of providing any information that would allow them to be tracked down by the government; paranoia is very common. I have offered to get help for the homeless I know and who know me by name, but they flat out refuse.

Going back to the Halifax gathering, I heard veterans (with homes) at my own table say they would not be bothered accepting Mr. Stograns invitation to speak to his staff because nothing was going to change, anyway. Despite his genuine open invitation to also contact his office by phone, email, or snail mail with their case particulars, input and/or constructive criticism on any shortcomings with his office, himself or staff being strongly encouraged. Short of the man, walking into the crowd with a pen and paper, himself, and strong arming what more could he do? Mr. Thompson is being pathetically ridiculous. This is a cut and dry case of shooting the messenger.

It should come as no surprise why soldiers hesitate to seek help for mental health issues or addictions, and less will be coming forward now, having witnessed how Mr. Stogranís admission of shortcomings is being received and how small Mr. Thompson has shown himself to be. 

I have yet to hear of a time Mr Thompson has come off a podium to take names. Iím sure there are many in the Agent Orange crowd who would have loved to have had him within arms reach.

Give Mr Stogran the full credit, he has earned. Heís the only one who has gotten out from behind his desk and entered homeless shelters. Where was Mr Thompson or any of his predecessors?  Where was any one in government; including VAC critics from opposition parties or Senior Canadian Forces Officers? Mr. Stogran has shown leadership and concern for the wellbeing of the troops. Leadership before this man was sorely lacking. No one had the guts to put themselves on the line, as he has.

Itís true we are behind other countries in this area. VAC has not obtained stats on veteranís suicides. However, I and others in the Advisory Committee have heard Mr. Stogran voice his concern with this issue, as well.

I, for one, hope Mr Stogran wonít resign. I believe him to be made of stronger stuff than quitting in the face of Mr. Thompsonís or anyone elseís petty comments and attitudes. If veterans are complaining, it is because his office is the first line of defence. The abuses and negation veterans have experienced has been going on for decades. Finally, they have an outlet for their frustrations. Understandably, they will have limited patience with any delays and little understanding for what his office has been up against. Many are dying: Time is not on their side.

If anything, his term should be extended until he and veterans are satisfied that the office has been adequately set up to handle the massive task before it. Until, this happens anyone else coming in to the position will be starting at ground zero with a steep learning curve in front of them.

I would be curious to find out the budget and resources given to the Veterans Review and Appeals Board (VRAB) and the Bureau of Pension Advocates (BPA). Members (27 to date) on VRAB receive salaries in excess of $100,000 this does not include their administration staff, airfare, hotels, transportation, meals etc. And lawyers, well, I wonít even guess at their salaries. VAC spends more on discounting and denying veterans than they do helping them.

There would be little need for VRAB or BPA, if VAC honoured the ĎBenefit of the Doubtí clause in the Pension Act. The medical personnel VAC has on staff remind me of  the ambulance chasers Insurance Companies have working for them, only the strong and persistent will ever get compensation and benefits due them. Now weíre into the salaries of Doctors and Nurses. I would conservatively estimate half the thousands of backlogged claims now before these VAC sub departments would be cleared. VAC should be upping the OVO budget instead of returning millions of dollars to Mr. Flaherty.

I can assure Mr. Thompson, that should he consider using Mr. Stogranís admissions against him and replacing him with someone who will tow the party line, he will lose the little credibility his Ministry has left.

Mr Stogran has opened himself and his office up for full public viewing: warts and all. I canít say the same for VAC and its sub departments. Seeing behind the curtain at VAC has the same secrecy has seeing into the inner chambers of the Vatican.

Claudia Schibler, Halifax, NS
Writer, Veterans Advocate
OVO Advisory Committee Member, proudly serving with Mr. Patrick Stogran and his staff.
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« Reply #3 on: May 07, 2009, 10:02:11 am »

OTTAWA - The verbal skirmishing between veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran and Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson continued Wednesday as the advocate appeared before a Senate subcommittee.

Kenneth Brown/Telegraph-Journal
Veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran told a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs is blocking his efforts to help homeless veterans.
Stogan, a retired colonel, told the standing subcommittee on National Security and Defence that the Department of Veterans Affairs is blocking his efforts to help homeless veterans across Canada.

Stogran also told the committee he has several concerns he would like to have addressed next week when the committee meets with the veterans affairs minister.

The biggest concern is the lack of access to department information to which he believes he should have full access, such as legal documents, so he can help veterans, he said.

He also expressed concern about the small number of people in his office, employment security for his workers and the "carving out" of turf by Thompson as far as "delegating his responsibilities."

Stogran told the committee he believes the department's deputy minister has too much power.

Last week, the ombudsman expressed dismay at the number of homeless veterans in Canada.

He told the committee that Veterans Affairs' lack of street-level initiatives to help homeless vets is the biggest problem that he sees.

"As an ombudsman I'm going to call it as I see it," he said after his committee appearance. "I've worked really hard over the last year to gain fair and open access to the department and, if they have information that would support me in my endeavour, I'm looking forward to it.

"I feel I have to give myself a failing grade as ombudsman," Stogran said, adding he feels he is partly to blame for any lack of co-operation between his office and the department.

Stogran he is concerned about, not just with existing veterans and war casualties, but also future veterans and whether the Canadian government has any safety nets in place for them.

"Can we say if you do become an operational stress casualty, we'll catch you?" he said, referring to families who now have sons and daughters in Afghanistan and those young Canadians who will want to fight for their country some day.

Stogran was appointed by Thompson, the MP for New Brunswick Southwest, as the country's first veterans affairs ombudsman in October 2007. The 2007 federal budget allocated $20-million a year to create the ombudsman's office for former armed forces personnel.

Since his appointment, Stogran has been travelling from coast to coast visiting homeless shelters and last week he said facilities from Calgary to Charlottetown have all served veterans.

Thompson recently said his ombudsman should "give his head a shake" because he failed to bring the names of homeless veterans to his office.

When asked by the committee how many names he has given to the department to date, Stogran said he has given them two.

Thompson said Wednesday that Stogran told him last week that is wasn't his job to forward him names of homeless veterans.

"His job is to identify problems within the veterans community and then to report them to the minister," he said. "But also there's an obligation to report those (names) to the men and women that can make a difference that day.

"Wouldn't he have the common sense to phone Veterans Affairs and say there's a number of homeless veterans - come down here. He doesn't have to provide the names, but let us know they're on the ground in Ottawa or Toronto or Montreal?"

Thompson said it is about having open and honest relationships between the ombudsman and himself and his staff.

However, there are specific reasons why information would be withheld from the ombudsman's office, the minister said.

"I've said, 'there's no reason why you can't have that document, in my opinion; unless there's some kind of a legal or security reason why you can't have the document, you'll have the document,' " he said.

"That's the kind of relationship we have."

Stogran said he could do his job better with access to all the department's information and more resources, but he respects the department and what they do for veterans.

The minister said homelessness is a result of other problems, including mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions.

Thompson denied Stogran's allegations the department isn't doing anything to help the former military personnel.

He said the Conservatives budgeted for veterans assistance three years ago, saying his department has doubled the number of operational stress injury clinics in the country and provided several peer support programs as well.

New Brunswick Senator Joseph Day said he's confident the situation can be resolved.

When you create something new like this, you never know how it's going to work and it's clear they have some growing pains," he said.

"They've got a very good man in the position. As long as he has the money to meet his mandate, he'll do a good job."


my response (comment) to the above story was.

The way that the Veterans have been neglected over the years would leave this reader very surprised and disappointed if the ombudsman wasn't stirring up some controversy. Mr. Stogran' s job after all is to find and try to correct the failings of both Ottawa and the Greg Thompson's VAC and I for one didn't expect his comments or suggestions to be welcomed with open arms by either of the two.

Too many military debouches like Gagetown Toxic Chemicals, Sheffield chemical experimentations and the use of Canadian Military to clean up Chalk River's nuclear accidents without any protection may be just the tip of the iceberg that a military ombudsman will have to tackle in the performance of his (by the government) thankless job.

I hope that Mr. Stogran is secure in the knowledge that Veterans support him and if Ottawa doesn't replace him for being too good at his job, veterans may live long enough to see some improvements in their treatment from VAC.
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« Reply #4 on: May 07, 2009, 01:57:00 pm »

Well, Mr Stogran gives himself a failing grade , but it is only because of the roadblocks Vet Aff throws up at reckless abandon.. i would give him and A for his efforts, and like to believe he is winning.. may i encourage him to hang in there?? He reminds of bygone years when Mr George Hees , himself a veteran, was Min of Vet Aff and the bangup job he did working for veterans... hmmm.. maybe we just need a new Min of Vet Aff... one who will at least TRY to work with the Ombudsman for the welfare of veterans..isnt that his mandate?? ranrad
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« Reply #5 on: August 29, 2009, 04:40:33 pm »

And now Mr Harper has stacked some more Senators to "buy" his way thru parliament , with others money , of course.. and no doubt in my mind is the hopes to scrap all of the main Houses work on scrapping the claw back.. make no mistake , brothers , the PM does not like to lose, and very obviously found out early in life how not to, and still not get a well deserved bop on the nose from one of his me he is a dictatorial , spoiled SOB , that this country would be far better off without.. even as an ordinary citizen.. we need rid of him and his ilk..rong
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