Supporting Australia’s Veteran and Ex-service Communities

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SPEECH BY THE HON STUART ROBERT MP

REPRESENTINGTHE MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS THE HON. DAN TEHAN MP

 

Introduction

It is an honour for me to be here on behalf of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC, Dan Tehan who sends his apologies for being unable to join you himself.

Today I would like to affirm to you the ongoing commitment of the Government to support Australia’s veteran and ex-service communities, and their families. The Government places great importance on ensuring that members of the veteran community have access to the services and support they need and to which they are entitled for the service they have given to our nation.

Before I tell you about some of the important veteran-related initiatives and the support available to Reservists, I want to thank you for your service.  The men and women of the Defence Reserves are selfless individuals who must often balance part-time military commitments with the demands of full-time civilian employment as well as family and other responsibilities.  The dedication of the Reserves continues to impress me and the Government recognises and values your contribution.  Throughout Australia’s history, Defence Reservists have played a significant role in diversifying and increasing the Defence Force’s capability in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

Since 1999, around 14,000 Reservists have been deployed on Australian Defence Force Operations. When joining a unit for a specific operation or deployment, Reservists often provide critical skills and enhance the capability of the permanent defence force.  Whether supporting domestic security, providing international humanitarian support or serving alongside their full-time counterparts on operations overseas, Reservists answer the call.  They also play a vital role in assisting in times of emergency and natural disasters, providing the community with much needed support to recover and rebuild.  For this, and much more, Australians owe you a debt of gratitude.

Election commitments

During the election campaign, the Government made a number of commitments that will see more resources injected into veteran services.  This included an additional $14.9 million for mental health services, which is an area of priority for government.  Specifically, we have allocated:

  • $6 million to support the establishment of a new Phoenix Australia Institute
  • $3.1 million to extend access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS)
  • $4 million to ex-service organisations to promote social inclusion and peer-to-peer support for our younger veterans
  • $600,000 to establish and run a Female Veterans’ Policy Forum
  • $1.2 million over four years to increase the amount veterans can claim for obtaining medical reports.

Mental health and suicide prevention

The Australian Government supports activities that raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental health among those who have served in the ADF.

Tackling mental health challenges is a pillar of the Government’s policy to support veterans and their families. DVA spends around $182 million a year on supporting the mental health needs of veterans, including:

  • online mental health information and support
  • general practitioner
  • psychologist, psychiatric and social work services
  • pharmaceuticals
  • in-patient and out-patient hospital treatment
  • and VVCS.

DVA encourages veterans to seek help early if they are worried about how they are feeling or coping.  Early intervention improves mental health outcomes.  Mental health information and resources for veterans and their families are available through At Ease (www.at-ease.dva.gov.au) — DVA’s portal to online mental health information.

At Ease provides self-help tools and information to support mental health and wellbeing and is a gateway to websites and free smartphone apps about stress, PTSD, alcohol management, resilience and suicide awareness and prevention.

At Ease links to a wide range of mental health resources for health professionals and GPs for effective evidence-based treatment of veterans.  The apps include High Res, which helps build resilience; and On Track With The Right Mix, which helps people monitor their drinking.

In recent years, we have also been looking at ways to help veterans support other veterans. In response to a suggestion by the veteran community, DVA is funding a Peer to Peer pilot program. Evidence shows that individuals experiencing mental health challenges who are well-supported have a sense of control in their health management, can envisage a path to wellness, and are more likely to complete the recovery process.  This recovery path can be aided by complementary support from peers, with whom the ex-service member can identify as having experienced military service and made an effective recovery from similar challenges

Suicide prevention

DVA also has a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy that includes suicide awareness and prevention resources, known as Operation Life, which comprises a website, mobile phone app, and face-to-face workshops run through VVCS in metropolitan and rural areas.

The Operation Life workshops are available free-of-charge to anyone in the veteran community. They teach people how to recognise and act on the signs of suicide risk in others.  On average, around 220 people participate in these workshops a year. As part of the 2016–17 Budget, the Government announced funding of $1 million to continue suicide prevention efforts in the ex-service community, including extending the Operation Life suicide awareness and prevention workshops.

The measure also includes funding to pilot an alternative suicide prevention product to support a more targeted approach to suicide prevention in Australia’s veteran community.  The objective of this pilot is to trial a tailored, veteran-specific suicide awareness and prevention program, based on lived experience of the ex-service community.  This pilot will also seek to offer a more flexible approach to the delivery and format of suicide awareness and prevention workshops.

VVCS

VVCS is the front line of mental health support to veterans, with counselling centres across Australia, as well as a strong network of outreach counsellors, particularly in rural and regional areas.  Reservists are unique in that they typically join a unit for a specific operation or deployment rather than in an ongoing capacity, which can make the transition from operations, and back to civilian life, more challenging.

This free, confidential, specialist counselling service operates 24/7 and provides services such as counselling, group programs and after-hours telephone crisis support. VVCS delivered 92,861 counselling sessions to 14,627 clients in 2014–15.  An additional 5,350 clients had their concerns resolved at intake; 1,610 clients participated in group programs and 6,571 people received after hours support.  This service is vitally important and has made – and continues to make – a difference to the lives of many.

Non-liability health care

The Government is building on the mental health support already available to veterans and their families.  We are committed to supporting veterans and their mental health now, and into the future.  That is why the Government announced $37.9 million net in the Budget to extend non-liability health care eligibility for treatment of certain mental health conditions to all current and former permanent members of the ADF, irrespective of how long or when they served, or the type of service.

The conditions covered are post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and substance use disorders.  To access these services is as simple as a phone call to DVA. Eligible veterans will be asked for information about their service and proof of identity, and will then be sent a White Card.  The White Card can be used to pay for mental health treatment and has additional benefits, including access to counselling from VVCS.  

This streamlines eligibility to accessing mental health treatment early.  And we all know that early intervention is key – as I mentioned a moment ago, the earlier an individual seeks support and has access to treatment, the more positive the health and other outcomes. 

DVA wants clients to seek help early if they are worried about how they are coping or feeling, and not to wait until the symptoms become overwhelming. Significantly, this Budget measure makes it easier for people to access timely treatment for mental health conditions.  It is also important to note that Government funding for mental health treatment is demand-driven and not capped—if an eligible person requires treatment, it is funded.

Review of suicide prevention services

On 11 August 2016, the Prime Minister, Minister for Health and Aged Care and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs jointly announced a review of suicide and self-harm prevention services available to veterans and ADF members.  The National Mental Health Commission, in conjunction with clinical experts and a reference group comprised of current and former members of the ADF, will undertake this important work.

The Government also announced that the first Suicide Prevention Trial Site will be established in North Queensland—one of 12 innovative, front-line trials in the fight against suicide, which will improve our understanding of the challenges and work to develop best-practice services that can be applied nationwide.

Business Case for Veteran-Centric Reform

  • Another key focus of the 2016–17 Budget for veterans involves DVA’s improving support systems and services to ensure they are client-focused.  The Government provided $24.8 million in the Budget to develop a business case for the transformation of DVA from claims processing to a veteran-centric model. This includes:  $18.7 million to DVA to consult with the veteran community and the Department of Human Services on the design and priorities for the transformation, and
  • $6.1 million to the Department of Human Services to design the modern ICT that will underpin the business case and integrate the solution with their new payments system.

This Veteran-Centric Reform aims to transform and modernise DVA’s business operations and ICT environment. It will provide a consolidated view of client information, engagement with DVA services before separation from the ADF, and simple and fast access to support and service delivery.

These reforms will directly benefit access to Reservists by improved information sharing with Defence and extend the reach and breadth of ways to connect DVA and Reservists.

This will change the engagement with all DVA clients – Reservist and permanent members, and former members.

Improving Processing Systems

In addition, the Government has allocated $23.9 million over two years to enable DVA to maintain and improve its critical compensation processing systems while developing the broader detailed veteran-centric transformation program.

The improvements will include:

  • improving the reliability of the ICT systems
  • improving consistency through more automated workflow and calculations, and
  • streamlining processing through digital and electronic documentation management.

DVA Services and Support

The Government, through DVA, provides a range of services and support to Reservists who have suffered a loss that is directly related to an accepted service injury or illness.

Services and support include:

  • permanent impairment payments
  • incapacity payments
  • household services
  • attendant care
  • aids and modifications
  • access to VVCS
  •  access to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 (MRCA) Education and Training Scheme
  • vocational rehabilitation.

In general terms, all ADF members can receive the same range of benefits and support. However, eligibility is dependent on the type of Reserve service.  As you would be aware, DVA administers a range of legislation that also affects eligibility.  

Today my focus will be on the services and support for Reservists under the MRCA. All members of the Navy, Army and Air Force Reserves with service on or after 1 July 2004 are covered under the MRCA, whether they are on part-time service or continuous full-time service. This covers them for injury, disease or death arising out of that service, including:

  • if it occurs while travelling between the Reservist’s place of residence and place of employment, including travel to and from Reserve parades and camps
  • Reserve service that has made a material contribution to it
  • aggravated by Reserve service.

The MRCA also provides a range of benefits, depending on particular circumstances and needs of the person.

Where compensation is payable, a needs assessment is conducted so that the Reservist receives all the benefits to which they are entitled.  Compensation for dependants may also be provided in the event of a Reservist’s death.  Regardless of the circumstances of the Reservist’s death, compensation for funeral costs may also be available.

Veteran employment

DVA provides tailored whole-of-person rehabilitation programs to former ADF members who have been injured as a result of their service.

This rehabilitation is provided through a variety of programs delivered by DVA-appointed private sector rehabilitation providers.

One area of focus is vocational rehabilitation. Over the past two years DVA has been enhancing its vocational rehabilitation program.  The Veterans’ Employment Assistance Initiative focuses on developing clients’ vocational goals and getting them job-ready to participate in the workforce.  Importantly, this draws on the breadth of skills acquired during their ADF service and aims to translate these skills to a job in a civilian setting.  DVA also considers the type of support required by employers who provide opportunities to rehabilitated ADF members.

We recognise that the transition from the services into civilian life can be challenging for some members, and we are committed to providing the required support to re-enter the workforce. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Health and Aged Care and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs announced increased support for veterans and ADF members, including an employment initiative to support people moving from military service to civilian life. In November, the Prime Minister will host the first Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Forum, which will find better ways to use the skills and leadership qualities of former service personnel

Medical Treatment

For Reservists, both the ADF and DVA provide medical treatment.

To access DVA support and compensation, the Reservist must lodge a claim.

Once liability has been determined, compensation can then be paid.

The MRCA also provides payment of medical costs for an accepted injury or disease for part-time Reservists when they are not undertaking Reserve service and for former Reservists.

In some instances, treatment is provided for all conditions, whether accepted as service related or not. 10

Conclusion

In conclusion, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today about some of the work the Government is doing to ensure veterans and their families are appropriately acknowledged and supported for their service to Australia. The Government is committed to serving those who have served through programs that enable veterans to lead productive and fulfilling lives post-service.

Once again, thank you to the Defence Reserves Association of Australia for the work you do and the service you have provided to veterans and their families.  I know this work is very much appreciated and is also greatly valued by myself, DVA and the Government.

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