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Thursday, 27 March 2014
Page: 3335

Mr ROBERT (FaddenAssistant Minister for Defence) (09:47): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I present legislation to the House that will improve access to mental health services for current and former members of the ADF and their families. This bill will enhance the operation of the Veterans' Review Board and make other improvements to veterans' affairs services and administration.

The bill reflects this government's commitment to recognising the unique nature of military service. Tackling mental health challenges for veterans and their families is one of the four pillars of our plan for veterans and their families.

Two of the measures in the bill will strengthen mental health services through increased access to nonliability health care and the expansion of access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, the VVCS.

The government currently spends around $166 million a year on mental health services for veterans, members and their dependants. This expenditure is not capped; it is demand driven.

It includes funding for online mental health information and support, GP services, psychologist and social work services, specialist psychiatric services, pharmaceuticals, PTSD programs and in-patient and outpatient hospital treatment.

The mental health measures in this bill will help build on existing support already available for veterans, members and their dependants.

From 1 July 2014, access to treatment under nonliability healthcare arrangements will be expanded to include diagnosed conditions of alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, regardless of whether the condition is service related.

From 1 July 2014, eligibility for treatment under nonliability healthcare arrangements for members of the Defence Force with peacetime service only will be expanded by removing the current cut-off date of 7 April 1994.

This means that all those with at least three years continuous full-time peacetime service will now also be eligible for non-liability health care for PTSD, anxiety and depressive disorders and alcohol and substance use disorders.

Members who discharge before completing their three years continuous full-time service may also be eligible, where discharge is on the grounds of invalidity or physical or mental incapacity to perform duties.

Veterans and members who have been unsuccessful in previous liability claims may be able to access mental health treatment under the expanded nonliability healthcare initiative.

This means that treatment for the mental health conditions of PTSD, anxiety and depressive disorders and alcohol and substance use disorders will be available without the need for the condition to be accepted as related to the member's service.

Mental health services for veterans, members and their families will be further improved through the expansion of the client groups eligible for counselling through the VVCS.

From 1 July 2014, current and serving members with certain peacetime service will be eligible for counselling through the specialised services of the VVCS. This includes border protection service, service in a disaster zone, either in Australia or overseas, service as a submariner and personnel involved in training accidents and members medically discharged.

Access to counselling services from VVCS will also be extended to partners and their dependent children, up to the age of 26, of these newly eligible groups and to the partners, dependent children aged up to 26, and parents of members killed in service related incidents.

It is recognised that military peacetime service has its own risks for exposure to traumatic events and impact on mental health.

It is understood that early access to treatment can result in better outcomes for clients.

Another significant measure in the bill will enhance the operation of the Veterans' Review Board, the VRB.

The VRB provides merit reviews of decisions relating to disability and war widower pension, compensation and other entitlements under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

The bill will introduce a legislative framework for alternative dispute resolution processes including conferencing and mediation.

Additional improvements relating to case management, and the administrative and procedural practices of the board are expected to enable more effective management of the functions of the board.

The 2011 Review of Military Compensation Arrangements recommended refining the appeal process under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to the board and then to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal as a means to a more timely, less complex, less costly review process.

There is widespread support amongst the ex-service organisations for this change.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs is working through the implementation implications for a single pathway in order to provide advice to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission and the government.

The changes proposed in this bill to prepare the way for a possible future single appeal process through the board.

Some might view the changes in this bill as 'legalising' the board or turning the board into a replica of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

I want to reassure the veteran community that that is not the case.

These changes are designed to give the board more modern and efficient processes.

They will enable the board to apply alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve matters more quickly and satisfactorily so as to prevent the need for hearings in many cases.

Alternative dispute resolution processes encourage early identification and clarification of the issues and for the gathering and consideration of the necessary evidence aimed at resolving the appeal at the earliest possible stage.

It is important to stress that the commission delegate who made the primary decision will not be involved in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.

Where a matter goes to a hearing, the same informal and non-legalistic approach to hearings will continue, which I know is appreciated by many in the veteran community.

There was extensive consultation with ex-service organisations in 2013 on these matters, and I am pleased that there is broad support for these reforms.

There will be further ongoing discussions with the ex-service organisations on the implementation of these changes.

Amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will expand the circumstances under which an eligible young person is taken to be wholly dependent on a member.

The expansion will include an eligible young person for whom the member is liable to pay child support.

These eligible young persons will have the same wholly dependent status as an eligible young person who lives with a member.

It should be noted that these situations are not exhaustive and other circumstances that meet wholly dependent status for an eligible young person will continue to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The bill will also act on the advice of the Department of Defence and make a technical amendment to an end date for a period of service in an operational area in schedule 2 of the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

The amendment will not disadvantage any veteran as the change to the date will align the period of service for that operational area with the dates of the instruments of allotment for that operational area which are dictated by the Department of Defence.

Further amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will enable the chief executive of Comcare to be nominated for appointment to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission.

This measure rectifies the inadvertent disqualification in 2012 of the chief executive of Comcare from nomination for appointment to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission.

The amendments reinstate the original intention of the MRCA, that the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission be able to benefit from the expertise of a member with whole-of-government knowledge on workers compensation issues.

Amendments relating to the Commonwealth seniors health card and seniors supplement will reduce the administrative burden on clients who travel overseas for more than six weeks.

Currently, one of the eligibility requirements for seniors supplement requires the person to be the holder of a Commonwealth seniors health card. If that person travels overseas for more than six weeks, to regain eligibility for seniors supplement the person must reclaim the Commonwealth seniors health card, which requires a written claim and proof of the person's income details.

The amendments will mean that card holders will be eligible for the seniors supplement on their return from overseas without needing to reclaim the Commonwealth seniors health card.

This government is committed to reducing red tape and this measure will assist older Australians to access benefits from the Australian government.

The measures in the bill will benefit veterans, members of our defence forces and the families of our military personnel.

This is achieved by providing additional treatment and services for mental health conditions and support for mental wellbeing. Improvements to the operations of the Veterans' Review Board, including introducing a legislative framework for proven alternative dispute resolution processes and providing easier access to seniors supplement for Commonwealth seniors health card holders who travel overseas for more than six weeks will also be beneficial to the veteran community.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.