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Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Page: 169

Mr GRIFFIN (10:30 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Statements of Principles and Other Measures) Bill 2006. Labor supports the bill. The bill contains a number of changes that will help improve administrative procedures within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, focusing particularly on the procedures of the Repatriation Medical Authority in relation to their review of statements of principles. This will be a positive aspect for veterans who seek to have decisions reviewed, as it should reduce the time taken for the review. The bill also corrects a technical fault in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act that did not authorise use of funds from the consolidated revenue fund to pay for certain benefits and allowances. It also corrects a number of minor anomalies in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. These minor corrections, as a whole, will be positive for the veteran community. I would now like to address these changes before I focus on some problems that I feel the government could have addressed with this bill.

The first schedule of the bill makes amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to provide for the review of a single factor or multiple factors within a statement of principles by the Repatriation Medical Authority rather than the entire contents of the SOP. The Repatriation Medical Authority is the body of medical and scientific experts that formulate statements of principles. These principles are used in determining issues of medical causation for claims for compensation and treatment under VEA. Currently, the VEA allows for the Repatriation Commission, veterans, their dependants or relevant organisations to request the RMA to review a SOP. Upon this request, the RMA must review the medical and scientific evidence in relation to the entire SOP, even when the request for review only concerns one or several factors. The amendments in this schedule will allow for the RMA to only review the relevant factors in these cases. Hopefully these amendments will therefore lead to a decrease in the time spent reviewing SOPs by the RMA. These amendments will also apply to the Specialist Medical Review Council, which is the appeal body to the RMA.

Schedule 2 of the bill makes a slightly technical amendment to the VEA which will provide authorisation for the appropriation of funds from the consolidated revenue fund for the payment of all benefits and allowances. The ANAO Audit report No. 15 of 2006-07 entitled Audits of the financial statements of Australian government entities for the period ended 30 June 2006 noted that:

During the 2005-06 financial year, DVA obtained legal advice that the services provided for British pensioners and other Dominion veterans are not covered by appropriation provided under Section 199 of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1996 (VEA), as British, Commonwealth and Allied (BCAL) veterans are not veterans for the purposes of the VEA. Consequently, these payments represent a contravention of section 83 of the Constitution and section 48 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (FMA).

As DVA has breached section 83 of the Constitution in making payments without valid appropriation support, a modified audit opinion with other statutory matters was issued outlining the background of this breach and the action in hand by DVA to regularise these payments without appropriation support.

This amendment will help to address this small technical problem.

The amendments contained within schedule 3 will clarify existing policy in relation to income stream rules. They also include consequential amendments, in response to changes in the family law, to allow the means test to be applied to certain non-superannuation annuities that are split pursuant to a divorce property settlement.

Schedule 4 of the bill makes a number of amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. Under the current act, the Repatriation Commission cannot accept liability for any injury that was intentionally self-inflicted. This amendment expands the definition of ‘injury’ to also include disease. This was the case under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act that covered these areas, and it is a minor technical amendment.

The bill also includes amendments that will provide for service personnel incapacitated by injury or disease while they are undergoing their initial training. These amendments will provide that all members and former members who are injured or contract a disease while undergoing initial training and who did not attain their final Defence Force income will be paid at the same progression rate as his or her classmates during the training period until completion of that training.

The member or former member will then be deemed to have graduated from the initial training at the same time as his or her classmates. Once the person is deemed to have graduated, their normal earnings will be calculated against the rank and employment category that the relevant service chief advises that the person would have held on completion of the initial training program. This is a positive change that corrects a current inequity. Labor fully supports this change.

The payment of a special rate disability pension under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act currently ceases at age 65 or after 104 weeks for people aged 63 or over. This amendment will remove those limits. The government has stated in its explanatory memorandum that this amendment was warranted because it was always intended that payment of the SRDP would be for life, consistent with payments of the special rate pension under the VEA. Labor fully supports this amendment. However, I do question whether the government really did always intend the payment to be for life or if this is more the result of effective lobbying by the ex-service community. Whatever the reason, this amendment is very welcome.

The amendments to section 327 provide that a determination by the commission concerning the appropriate treatment path is only required where the person is entitled to treatment under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and no determination is required if the person meets the criteria for treatment for all conditions. These are minor technical amendments.

Finally, the bill allows for the payment of travel expenses to the Veterans Review Board for those under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. This brings that act into line with the VEA. I congratulate the government on this amendment which, again, I believe has come about after lobbying from the veteran community.

As a whole, this bill contains a series of minor amendments. However, some of these amendments will make a real difference for members of the veteran and ex-service community. Labor particularly welcomes the removal of the age 65 limit for the payment of the special rate disability pension, provision of travel expenses to attend hearings of the Veterans Review Board in relation to appeals under the MRCA, and the reforms to incapacity payments for those members injured in their initial training. I therefore congratulate the government and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs on these amendments.

However, as I foreshadowed earlier, it is disappointing that a bill that aims to improve administrative procedures does not do more to address some current problems within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I am primarily concerned with two aspects: firstly, the time taken to process claims; and, secondly, the large claims backlog that currently exists within the department.

Firstly, with regard to the time taken to address claims, the annual report of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs revealed a dramatic increase in the time it takes to process veterans’ claims, particularly those relating to injury. The time taken to process a primary compensation claim under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act is reported as 106 days, while the target is 75 days. This is a 40 per cent increase over target time. The mean time taken to process primary injury claims under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act ballooned from 122 days in 2004-05 to 181 days in 2005-06. That is a 48 per cent increase since 2004-05. The mean time taken to process primary injury claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act has blown out from 90 days to 146 days. That is up 62 per cent since 2004-05. Finally, the time taken to process new impairment claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act has dramatically ballooned from 26 days to 130 days. That is up 400 per cent since 2004-05.

Secondly, with regard to the large backlog of claims that exists within the department, in an answer to questions at the last estimates round, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs revealed that 4,570 claims have exceeded the average time taken to process a claim. The backlog included 2,583 claims for disability pension, 956 claims for compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and 545 claims for compensation under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. This is completely unacceptable.

What worries me is that, at the same time claims processing times have blown out and a backlog continues to grow, the department has revealed that it has been forced over the last two financial years to implement a net national reduction of 12.5 per cent in staff allocated to compensation claims processing under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act in order to meet the government’s budget allocations. There was also a reduction in resourcing provided to these areas.

The minister should not be cutting staff or resources to his department when they are failing to meet their current obligations. I understand that the demography of the veteran population is changing and in time that will mean that less money will be required to run the department. However, if the minister thinks it is appropriate to cut staff and resources at a time when some claims have blown out in processing time by up to 400 per cent and there is a backlog of 4,570 claims, he is sorely mistaken. Until the minister can get the department’s workload under control there should be no further cuts.

The problem with this area is that you are dealing with people who often have severe mental or physical issues. They are not well and are at their most vulnerable. This is a very difficult time for a veteran. To be in a situation where the time lines are blowing out adds to the pressure on the veteran. We are talking about people who served our country, and they deserve much better service than they are currently getting from the Howard government. These problems exist in more than the statistics and figures that I have recited today. Hardly a week goes by when my office does not hear of a story in regard to the hardships that veterans are forced to face while they wait for the bureaucracy to process their claims. Often these veterans are seriously inconvenienced financially and in the more tragic circumstances some see a worsening of their condition as their stress grows.

One of these cases that my office came across concerned a veteran who had to wait for over a year for a response to a letter he had written asking for a review of a determination made by the department. Sadly, when the response finally came it was to tell him that his claim had been passed on to another part of the department. I can only imagine the stress and inconvenience this has caused the person in question and his family. I have already informed the minister that Labor will be pursuing this issue at estimates.

With regard to the blow-outs in processing time and the massive backlogs, I would urge the minister to go further than these few minor administrative changes and begin to address the problems in his department relating to claims processing. As to the amendments and changes that are included under this bill, Labor fully supports them and I wish them a speedy passage through the other place.