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Wednesday, 12 May 2004
Page: 23001

Senator MARK BISHOP (11:19 AM) —The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 provides for the electronic receipt of many communications within the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Veterans' Review Board, the Repatriation Medical Authority and the Specialist Medical Review Council. It gives those electronic communications legal status. At the same time, it regularises and standardises format, language and process. Until now, all communications with respect to claims and lodgment of documents with DVA and its agencies have been exempt from the provisions of the Electronic Transactions Act. This act requires that electronic communications with the Commonwealth be given legal status unless an exemption is granted. That exemption was given with respect to the Veterans' Entitlements Act, pending resolution of the detail now contained in this bill.

In making the provisions needed to bring veterans' matters into line, the opportunity has been taken to standardise processes, form and language in the principal act. These changes affect claims for most benefits, advice, applications for review, changes of circumstances, withdrawals and most other communications between veterans and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Therefore, the bill is purely technical, with significant housekeeping by way of simplification and standardisation. The bill is straightforward and non-controversial. It has been inevitable and, to some extent, it is overdue.

Electronic communication is, of course, now the standard method of transacting business. It is quick, efficient and effective. The ex-service community as a whole may not be online to the same extent as other sections of the community, but ex-service organisations certainly are. The BEST scheme has had an important impact here, as it is under that program that funding has been made available for computer hardware. Without that assistance, it is doubtful whether the take-up of technology would have been nearly as high or, indeed, as effective.

It must also be said that the development of the Compensation Claims Processing System, CCPS, in the Department of Veterans' Affairs is part of this electronic approach to claims assessment. For the information of the Senate, this is a computer based system which guides decision making through the legislation in testing all claims. Equally, the system is available to those making claims. Therefore, they can provide the detail required in the same format; hence the usefulness of this added electronic connection. Not only does the CCPS contain that decision-making tree but also it is self-contained with respect to necessary references to the statements of principal and other important databases. It is a very advanced approach to decision making in a quite complex area of law.

As with all systems, of course, there is scope for human error. Many claims are still rejected and succeed on appeal. Often, though, this is due to new information, not faulty decisions. This raises a most dramatic contrast. Despite these wonders of the electronic age, veterans' details are still recorded on paper. For those seeking to make claims for a service pension, war widow pension or disability pension these records are critical. Unfortunately, they are also the greatest weakness. Evidence given to the recent inquiry by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee addressed this particular problem in some detail. It is accepted in this jurisdiction that records made during wartime were and are often, subsequent to the war, at risk, hence the benefit of the doubt and hence the utility of other sources of corroborative advice. There are special provisions in the legislation which provide for this allowance. As well, the onus of proof of factual evidence is not with the claimant but with the department.

These are considerable concessions. They are understandable where service has been rendered overseas in dire circumstances. It is not understandable, however, in modern service circumstances. Yet it is clear that the state of defence personnel records is a shambles. This is the only conclusion which can be drawn from the evidence to date. Not only are there multiple copies of files; there are separate files for health and then there are separate health files for psychological records maintained and kept in different places. Veterans constantly complain that the files are incomplete. In some cases, they are totally missing. Even when there have been recent attempts to store files electronically or in photo form it is said that they have been lost. We have had a grand plan called HealthKEYS, which is reassuring, but veterans are not holding their breath.

Put simply, evidence at recent committee hearings suggests that the problem does not appear to be working a quick way to a solution. Even to this day, we hear from service people sent to Iraq that they have no idea of the type of vaccinations they receive. Indeed, it is only after prolonged questioning that some of the consequences of those vaccinations appear to have been understood or realised. Some veterans simply say that their records cannot be found. I do not want to reopen the anthrax issue but it is a very important case in point. The whole history of health care for veterans is littered with experiences where service people have little idea of what they have been exposed to. That is a separate matter, but record keeping does remain at the heart of that particular problem.

We do recognise that there are, in fact, hundreds of thousands of files. They are all stored at different locations right around the country and access is not always easy. We also know that, although it is not necessary, freedom of information requests are the major retrieval tool. In short, claims for veterans' entitlements are a big business. There are over 50,000 claims made each year. These are for disability pensions, pension increases, service pensions and war widows' pensions. Each one requires access to a file. It is only to be hoped that, at least for the future, the electronic age matures in a hurry. The current chaos is indefensible.

This legislation is timely. It focuses on the real need to get this problem fixed, but it is much bigger than simple communication. It is about the need to commit fully to the electronic storage of documents and their retrieval. So far we have only had bits and pieces. Unfortunately, we will probably never get to the situation where the current population of ex-service people might gain that benefit. The paperchase, we suspect, will continue for decades into the future.

We all know that Department of Veterans' Affairs has sought to take control of all records. The question is, however, whether it is adequately resourced to carry out the function which it seeks to do. History shows that Defence is simply not good at looking after ex-service matters. All overheads such as this are regarded as marginal. It is only the sharp end to Defence which seems to matter. We will watch this saga as the transference occurs and the bill becomes an act and is implemented in the department. The opposition support this bill.