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Tuesday, 11 September 2018
Page: 7


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (12:37): Former US president Theodore Roosevelt said:

A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.

Truer words have probably never been spoken. However, in contemporary times, I would like to add 'any man or woman'. It is right and just that the men and women who put their lives on the line—and their families, who also sacrifice so much—get a fair deal from the country they serve to protect. When an individual undertakes to serve his or her country, we in turn undertake a commitment to supporting them and their loved ones. If we are being honest in this place, can the Morrison government say hand on heart that they are genuinely doing good enough for our currently serving and ex-serving personnel, veterans and their families? Are the 500 ex-serving personnel and veterans who are leaving the ADF every year on average in Townsville alone better off after they leave the forces? Are veterans able to get quality employment, access to health services or access to clinical specialists? Are they receiving the support they need?

Unfortunately, when I visit homeless centres in Townsville, the evidence suggests that the government is not doing well enough. Unfortunately, when I visit ex-service organisations in Townsville, I am told that the government could do much more for veterans. And, unfortunately, when I meet the veterans and their families and hear their stories regarding their inability to access health services—in some cases, for months—it tells me that the government is not doing well enough. Access to health services for our veterans is the largest-growing concern for Townsville's defence community. This LNP government is actually at the heart of the problem. Access to clinical services is being impacted by the LNP government's indexation freeze on the DVA's Repatriation Medical Fee Schedule. The fee schedule, which is indexed in line with the Medicare rebate indexation, has remained stagnant, and this is acting as a disincentive for some medical specialists to provide treatment for veterans. The LNP government's Medicare freeze impacts those veterans who access health services that are paid by DVA, with the Repatriation Medical Fee Schedule linked to Medicare rebates. As the Repatriation Medical Fee Schedule is unable to increase while the Medicare rebates are frozen, and veterans are unable to be charged a gap, this is forcing clinicians to turn veterans away.

This is not just a Labor concern. It has also been a concern voiced by the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Psychological Association, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention. The impact on veterans was highlighted in a survey conducted by the Australian Medical Association, which found that:

… the indexation freeze is clearly having an impact on access to care for veterans and this will only get worse over time … The continuation of the indexation freeze puts a significant question mark over the future viability of the DVA funding arrangements and the continued access to quality specialist care for veterans.

The organisations and bodies that I mentioned above are not the only people concerned about this issue. The Commonwealth Ombudsman has also made submissions to the Productivity Commission inquiry into compensation and rehabilitation for veterans and has highlighted the difficulty veterans are having in accessing health services, noting that it is deeply concerned. The Ombudsman has exposed how wrong the LNP government is and demonstrates what veterans, the Australian Medical Association and Labor have been saying for some time: that the government's ongoing Medicare freeze is limiting access to medical treatment for veterans.

In addition, the report highlights the fact that multiple health checks and excessive delays have sadly become the norm for many veterans applying for assistance from DVA. It should never, ever be the norm for any of our veterans to have to wait for healthcare assistance from DVA. Furthermore, the Prime Minister's own advisory council on veterans' mental health said in their submission to the commission:

It would appear there is a limited, but perhaps increasing, number of medical specialists turning our veteran away once they become aware they are DVA clients. The Council understand the concern regarding accepting DVA clients stems from the fact that MBS fees have been frozen for many years.

That is advice from the Prime Minister's own advisory council on veterans, but what does this arrogant LNP government do? It continues to ignore calls by veterans and their families, Labor and the experts to lift the Medicare freeze.

Probably the most damning statement against the LNP government and the Medicare freeze is from the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service National Advisory Committee, who stated:

The remuneration gap between seeing veterans versus private patients from the general community or Defence members is now so significant that clinical providers are prioritising other clients over DVA referrals. In some cases, providers are refusing to accept clients with DVA white or gold cards because of the poor remuneration offered. The health industry is being forced by this government to turn away from veterans who are seeking help. This is not the fault of the health industry: the blame lies squarely with this current government. In a submission to the commission GO2 Health, a privately owned, multidisciplinary medical centre which provides care and support for more than 600 active DVA clients, stated:

Under the current DVA payment scheme, the majority of the expected community health care team are poorly remunerated for their hard work supporting the veterans. As a centre that specialises in the care of veterans, GO2 Health is keenly aware of the financial hardship taken on by practitioners who choose to serve the veteran community.

Doctors should not be left with the financial hardship and, more importantly, our Defence community should not be left without medical assistance. This issue was also raised in the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-serving personnel by submitters, including the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, the Australian Psychological Society and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. Our Defence community deserve better than an LNP government that has cut their pay and frozen their health entitlements, making it harder for our veterans to seek medical assistance; is not adequately supporting an employment scheme and matching Labor's $121 million veterans' employment scheme; and has not committed to Australia's first military covenant, as Labor has just announced.

If Labor were in government right now, we would have a military covenant that would question whether a policy or legislation has been in the best interest of our military community. A military covenant could question whether freezing the Medicare rebate and therefore also freezing the Repatriation Medical Fee Schedule is truly in the best interests of our veterans and their families. The chances are that these are not in the best interests of our ex-serving personnel, veterans and their families.

That is why the military covenant announced by Labor is so important for our Defence community. A Labor government would sign and establish Australia's first military covenant, a formal agreement that will ensure that our nation's Defence Force members are fully supported during and after their service. The covenant will recognise the significant commitment that our armed forces make in serving this great nation. But what is most important about this announcement is that Labor will also introduce legislation that will require future governments to report annually to the parliament on how they are meeting their responsibilities in supporting our serving and ex-serving personnel and their families. The inclusion of accountability in this legislation ensures that we are measuring outcomes and not just speaking hollow words.

The covenant will be similar to the United Kingdom's Armed Forces Covenant, a document of principles promising those who serve or have served in the armed forces and their families that they will be treated fairly, especially in their time of need. Labor will work with the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and ex-service organisations to draft the relevant wording for the military covenant and associated legislation. The covenant will make sure that those in need do not simply fall through the cracks, as so often happens now.

I want to acknowledge the strong advocacy work of ex-serving organisations, particularly ADSO, and especially local Townsville advocate retired colonel Ray Martin, whose work and advocacy over the last nine years for the defence covenant must be recognised in this place.

Those who put their lives on hold to serve our country deserve to know that we acknowledge the sacrifice that they and their families have made in serving our nation and that we are committed to being there for them when they need support and assistance. When a current serving or ex-serving person, veteran or family member goes to a doctor seeking help, they should not be treated as second-class citizens and refused assistance purely because this government refuses to lift the Medicare freeze. I want to go back to the quote that I started with:

A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.

Again I will add 'a man or woman'. Our Defence community deserve a square deal, and they certainly deserve better than what this disgraceful LNP government is doing to them. It is about time those opposite remember that.

I will always stand up for our Defence community because they have given their lives for Australia, the Australia that I know and love today. I also acknowledge that Townsville is the largest garrison city in the nation with the largest veterans population. The contribution that is made by the Defence forces in my community, both socially and economically, is absolutely significant. I pay my deep respects to them and their families and thank them for the contribution they make to the Townsville community.