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Thursday, 5 April 1984
Page: 1344


Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(6.48) —Madam Acting Deputy President, it is probably unusual for a Minister to take advantage of an adjournment debate to make a statement to the Senate. It had been my intention to do so at the time for ministerial statements this morning but it was not possible to prepare what I have to say by then so I am taking advantage of the adjournment debate to reply by way of a ministerial statement to Senator Macklin.

On Thursday, 29 March 1984 Senator Macklin addressed the Senate during the adjournment debate on the contents of a letter of complaint from a veteran. Senator Macklin said:

. . . on some occasions one is confronted with what to do with a constituent's complaint or problem.

I suggest to Senator Macklin that there is a ready answer, and that is to avail himself of the invitation I have offered all honourable senators and members. If they have a complaint or representation to make on behalf of a constituent that comes within my portfolio, I have indicated my availability and willingness to initiate an immediate and thorough investigation.

Indeed, I believe a feature of my approach to the administration of my portfolio has been the emphasis I have placed on resolving quickly constituent representations put to me by honourable senators and honourable members. Upon assuming office as Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I found a totally unsatisfactory situation existed in relation to the answering of such representations. A year ago, for example, it took on average three to four months for the Department to supply me with the facts necessary to provide the detailed answer required. In point of fact, in the early days of my assuming office as Minister, it took 64 days to receive a detailed response in relation to one such representation raised by Senator Macklin, another took 60 days, and another 54 days. In another 15 cases about which Senator Macklin has made direct representations to me, the responses have come on an average within 20 days. As I found that to be an unsatisfactory situation, I immediately instituted new procedures which, I am pleased to say, have now reduced the average response time to three weeks. I want eventually to be able to guarantee that representations made by any member of the Senate or House of Representatives are answered comprehensively within two weeks.

I realise that it is important that members of Parliament receive prompt replies to representations they make in respect of complaints made to them by constituents. Long delays in the receipt of those replies reflect not only on the member concerned but also on the Government. I have taken the steps that I have in the interests of providing a competent service and ensuring effective representation by the members concerned. Consequently, I am disappointed that Senator Macklin, knowing the approach that I have taken to these matters, chose not to approach me personally but to take a postulating position in the Senate and elsewhere.

Honourable senators, having heard the detailed contribution Senator Macklin made in the adjournment debate, could reasonably have concluded that here was a case of a lone individual battling unsucessfully with the bureaucratic machine and being heartlessly refused his entitlements at law. I assure the Senate that the real picture is not quite like that. A preliminary point I make with great emphasis is that the veteran concerned gave most meritorious service to Australia under extremely arduous and dangerous conditions. Because he gave such wonderful service during World War II, he is deserving of the best possible response. Since 1946 he has been dealing with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and its predecessor and, where it has been possible to do so at law, repatriation determining authorities have granted his claims. For many years he has been in receipt of a disability pension at varying levels from the Department. Mr Acting Deputy President, you will appreciate, as I am sure honourabale senators generally do, that the Department has to deal with hundreds of thousands of applications for disability and other pensions, as well as applications to vary such pensions. As honourable senators will know, a person might be entitled to only 10 per cent or up to 100 per cent of the disability pension, depending on the nature and the degree of success of the claim before the determining authorities. However, in this case I accept that there have been administrative shortcomings and mistakes in the handling of this case over the years, and for that I apologise.

What this personal case highlights, however, is the wider problem of the urgent need for reform of the repatriation system and, in particular, for action to overcome the totally unacceptable delays that occur in settling pension claims. In the four-tier system some veterans have to wait up to three years to have their case finally dealt with, and not necessarily satisfactorily. Their claim could be rejected but they have had to wait that length of time-more than 800 days-to have their case dealt with.

My Department at present faces acute difficulties with the backlog of claims and appeals that has developed in recent years. The causes of these difficulties are threefold. Firstly, the Repatriation Act has not been consolidated, rationalised or simplified since 1920, and it now rivals the Conciliation and Arbitration Act and the Income Tax Assessment Act in complexity and difficulty of administration. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Senator Messner, who set in train the review of that legislation, the results of which are currently before the Government for consideration. Senator Messner recognised how unsatisfactory the situation was. The Act had been in operation since 1920 when a completely different set of social circumstances applied. That is why he set in process that review of the Act. Secondly, the determining system has not been reformed since it was established and is now quite inadequate in the current framework of administrative review. Every veteran who served in World War II is now in his or her sixties and quite often therefore is finding that disabilities occur. Maybe such disabilities arise because of age. Nevertheless, he or she believes that they have arisen as a result of war service. Thirdly, I believe that the administrative mechanisms by which claims are processed for determination are both procedurally inadequate and underresourced. I have established a task force within the Department to address these matters. I believe that reform of the legislation and the determining system will resolve the problems that claimants for veterans' benefits now face in obtaining a timely recognition of their legal entitlements. It is puzzling that despite strong ex-service support for measures to overcome the present backlog, the same honourable senator, Senator Macklin, has criticised the reforms and threatened to oppose the legislation that gives effect to them.

As I have said, this particular case is a complex one and has been compounded by the veteran's apparent lack of understanding of the procedures required at law in a complex field such as repatriation. I make no criticism of the veteran concerned in this case, because ordinary citizens find it difficult to comprehend all of the complexities of the processes of government and of the law . I am in no way criticising the person concerned. I know how difficult it is, particularly for many of the frail veterans with whom we deal, to live in our highly complex society and to understand all of the processes that they have to go through in complying with the Government's requirements. I have requested that a senior officer of the State branch concerned make personal contact with the veteran immediately to seek to resolve the problems worrying him. The Repatriation Commission will review all the entitlements of the veteran and the incapacities in relation to which he has been refused a pension to see whether any further improvement can be made to the situation.

I indicate the Government's determination to take up this specific case urgently. I have used the adjournment debate to raise this matter because once the Senate adjourns tonight it will not resume until early in May. Therefore I have taken this opportunity to put on the record the Government's determination to do what it can to rectify the situation in a short time. I have today written to Senator Macklin informing him of the results of my investigation, and I have in that letter dealt with issues that he raised on behalf of the veteran. The letter answers in detail all of the questions and major problems raised by Senator Macklin. I have found it necessary to reply to the specific questions that he raised. That letter was delivered to Senator Macklin this afternoon. For the benefit of those honourable senators who were concerned, as I was, about the statements that Senator Macklin made, I seek leave to have that letter incorporated in Hansard. It does not reveal the identity of the applicant but it answers very many of the questions that were posed by Senator Macklin.

Leave granted.

The letter read as follows-

5 April 1984

Dear Senator Macklin,

I refer to the letter from a Veteran from which you read in the Senate during the debate on the adjournment motion on Thursday, 29 March 1984. Subsequently, you were kind enough to pass on the name of the Veteran concerned. I have had a close and thorough investigation made of his case and can now respond to the issues raised.

May I say at the outset that the Veteran had a distinguished service record, the equal of any other which has been brought to my notice. He has also now had a long association with my Department. However, the history of that association as recorded in the Department's records is different from the description you gave to the Senate.

The first point to be noted is that the Veteran is in receipt of disability pension from my Department at 70% of the General Rate. He has been in receipt of pension at this level since 1970. He has the following accepted incapacities:

small epididymal cysts right scrotum, accepted by a Repatriation Board in 1946;

appendicitis with appendectomy, accepted by the Repatriation Commission in 1957 ;

anxiety state with functional colitis, accepted by a Repatriation Board in 1957 ;

haemorrhoids, accepted by a Repatriation Board in 1958;

orchidectomy left, accepted by a Repatriation Board in 1960;

cervical spondylosis and associated fibrositis, accepted by a Repatriation Board in 1978;

cataract left eye, accepted by the Repatriation Commission in 1984.

The actual history of his claims is slightly more complex than the preceding paragraph suggests. For example, a Repatriation Board had accepted functional dyspepsia in 1957, but this incapacity was then merged into the accepted incapacity of anxiety neurosis with functional colitis later that year. This change followed further medical investigation. Similarly, in 1947 a Repatriation Board had accepted fibrositis of neck and shoulders, but this incapacity was later incorporated into a further decision accepting cervical spondylosis. Polyarthritis and rheumatic symptoms are also related to this decision. I might add that, in 1947, a Repatriation Board had accepted malaria as related to service but this entitlement was removed in 1957, when it became apparent that it was no longer causing actual incapacity.

There have been other claims from the Veteran which have not been accepted, including for astigmatism, refused by the Repatriation Board in 1947, hypermetropia and presbyopia, refused by an Entitlement Appeal Tribunal in 1972 and villous adenoma of the rectum (excised), refused by a Repatriation Board in 1978. There was also a claim in respect of polyarthralgia, refused by a Repatriation Board in 1978.

The various claims and lines of correspondence have been complex and tangled. They have covered several decades and residence in two States. He has dealt with Branch Offices in three States. The Veteran has also spent considerable time working offshore and, more recently, some distance from his State capital during the week. It has not been easy to make personal contact with him.

From an examination of the files, it is evident that there have been some administrative breakdowns which have caused the Veteran concern. The Department has decided to interview him to see if all outstanding matters can be identified and action taken to resolve them quickly. The Repatriation Commission has also decided to review this case, although, on the record, the relevant entitlement decisions appear to have been taken properly and in accordance with the law. It is possible, however, that a particular decision in recent years by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal could throw fresh light on the Veteran's claim in respect of Villous Adenoma.

You raised a number of questions on behalf of the Veteran. I do not propose to go into detail on all the matters raised as perusal of the Hansard record would show that many of the questions are irrelevant and have no relationship to the Repatriation system. I will, however, traverse those matters directly bearing upon the case.

The Veteran asked why claims have been refused, allegedly on grounds of lack of medical evidence when in fact the medical evidence is in the files of the Armed Services. The refusals to which the Veteran refers were made in years before reasons for decisions had to be furnished by determining authorities. For that reason it is impossible to determine now what was taken into account and why. Certain decisions were taken, but there is no ground to conclude that any were made on the basis of lack of medical evidence. Indeed, the original acceptance of malaria by a Repatriation Board was a favourable decision made in spite of the absence of any recorded malarial attack on service. On the other hand, while the Veteran's service documents showed that he suffered amoebic dysentery during service, no amoeba were seen when pathology tests were conducted in the period immediately after the war.

The Veteran has asked why drug entitlements for returned soldiers were reduced. It would seem that in his particular case one of the drugs which was being prescribed for this incapacity was one intended to be withdrawn when the drug list was being reviewed under the previous Government. One of my first decisions as Minister was to postpone that review and the drug was reinstated.

Any review of prescription drugs under my jurisdiction would be an objective review ensuring that those drugs necessary remain available. Unnecessary duplication of the prescription list and the continuation of prescriptions no longer medically necessary will be discontinued. Just because an individual drug is withdrawn from the list does not necessarily mean that the quality of treatment is in any way lessened.

The Veteran refers to the practice of insurance companies placing loadings on insurance premiums for Veterans. Insurance companies will place loadings on insurance premiums, not only on Veterans, but on any members of the community in certain circumstances suggesting an increased risk. The purpose of the Repatriation system is to provide compensation payments as well as medical treatment where incapacities arise from war service. One of the side issues in this is that pension payments offset problems such as having to pay increased insurance premiums.

He raised the question of why the Army failed to include all medical history in the records of ex-diggers, making it impossible to prove what diseases or illnesses or wounds he has suffered. In a war time situation, particularly in the very adverse circumstances in which this Veteran served, any medical record must be less than perfect. It is for this reason that the Parliament has included in the Repatriation Act the provisions of sub-section 47 (1). These require determining authorities under the Repatriation Act to take account of the fact that records would be missing, thus ensuring that Veterans are not penalised. The evidence suggests that this provision has been applied in this case.

The Veteran asked why there is an 8 month delay in obtaining a specialist appointment. In this instance the appointment was with the National Acoustic Laboratory. While it is acknowledged that delays in arranging appointments with the N.A.L. have been excessive, these delays are being reduced with the co- operation of the Minister for Health and his Department which has the responsibility for the N.A.L.. I might add that, in fact, the Veteran did not have to wait 8 months for his appointment. After writing to me he was given an appointment within a month.

He asked how the Repatriation system can refuse to accept a disability for up to 7 years, and in one case 30 years, and then when it does accept a claim, refuse to fully backdate the decision. Specifically, he referred to a refusal of a claim for dysentery. There is in fact no record of the Veteran ever having claimed for dysentery. He certainly mentioned it when giving medical history in the years immediately after his war service and again when claiming in respect of an abdominal problem in 1952, but it was never the subject of a specific claim. As to the question of delay of 30 years, I presume that the Veteran is referring to his claim for ''cataract left eye''. He wrote to the Department in 1971 and that letter was taken to be a claim for acceptance of this disability. The claim was refused by a Repatriation Board and the Veteran then pursued his claim through to an Entitlement Appeals Tribunal which refused the appeal in 1972. No further approach was made on this matter until April 1983, when the Veteran lodged further information which was reviewed by a delegate of the Repatriation Commission under section 107VM of the Repatriation Act. The Veteran received a statement of the reasons for decisions given by the delegate. I would have thought that the statement of reasons was self-explanatory. The delegate explained that the law as to the standard of proof under section 47 of the Repatriation Act had been amended substantially in 1977 and, by applying that law, as amended by this Parliament, the delegate was then able to accept '' cataract left eye''. To say that the Repatriation system had been refusing a claim for 30 years but then granted it, without regard to this very substantial amendment to the law in the interim, is misleading. As to the question of backdating, that is a matter that is dealt with under section 107VZG of the Repatriation Act and the delegate must determine the date of operation of his decision in accordance with that section.

The Veteran asks how 'Repat' can divulge a ''digger's'' personal medical history to an employer and so endanger his employment. This appears to relate to an incident of some years ago, the details of which are not altogether clear but possibly involved the provision of a list of medical entitlements to a medical officer of the company then employing the Veteran. I should add that the medical officer was also the Veteran's personal medical adviser, the situation being unusual and in a very remote location. I note, however, that the Veteran recently wrote to my Department and actually asked the Department to supply details of his accepted incapacities to his present employer so that he could obtain the privilege of a special leave scheme.

He also asked why 'Repat' seeks employment and wage details of a recipient of disability pension. As I mentioned earlier, the Veteran is in receipt of pension of 70 per cent of the General Rate. His pension is currently being re-assessed, following acceptance of ''cataract left eye'' and as a result of his application for an increase in pension. In view of Court decisions as to the requirements before decisions are made for the special rates of pension under the Repatriation system, my Department requested certain information from the Veteran on his current employment and earnings. The Department would have been negligent in the discharge of its duties had it failed to do so, should the medical and other evidence point to the Veteran being entitled to pension above 100 per cent General Rate level.

I note that the Veteran said in his letter 'it is not until 1983 when under the Freedom of Information Act 1983 I found out that the Repat had evidence of some of my illnesses . . .'. The Department of Veterans' Affairs and its predecessors have had for many years a practice of allowing access to personal files by Veterans. The Veteran never sought to take advantage of his access. Given his long absences from Australia this is perhaps understandable. However, the point I make is that he did not have to wait for the Freedom of Information Act. I note that in 1972, when he pursued an appeal to the War Pensions Entitlement Appeals Tribunal during an absence from Australia, he was advised that a summary of his file had been handed to his advocate by the Tribunal. Surely this would have indicated to him that there were arrangements for access.

In summary, this is a complex case but it is not as grim a picture as portrayed by your remarks to the Senate. It is a case of a Veteran who has been in frequent contact with the Department since his discharge from the forces at the end of World War II. It is a case of a Veteran with a number of accepted incapacities, involving most of the body's systems. You might note from what I have said that most claims were accepted by Repatriation Boards, the first level of determination, without any significant delay. The Veteran was not required to pursue appeals on them.

It is also a case where there have been administrative breakdowns occasioned largely by communications difficulties. In my view the only way to deal with this difficulty in a complex case, such as this, is to assign one officer to deal with all matters. Unfortunately, it is not practicable to do this over a long period. Nonetheless every effort will be made to resolve all outstanding matters as quickly as possible with the co-operation of the Veteran. I would also appreciate your co-operation in this regard.

Yours sincerely,(A. T. GIETZELT)

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 7 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 May 1984, unless otherwise called together in accordance with the Sessional Orders.