E&OE transcript Press conference Parliament House, Canberra 16 February 2023
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me here today. The last time that I stood here, the Government had just received the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. A report that highlighted that the rate of suicide amongst our veteran community is significantly higher than we see across the general Australian population. A report that showed that the complexity of the legislation that supports our veterans entitlement system and the delays in the processing of veterans claims is contributing to the suicidality of our veterans. The interim report talked about the way in which our three existing schemes of legislation for veterans that have built up over more than a century now are complex, difficult to understand, difficult to operate from the Department’s point of view as well, and leads to anxiety amongst our veteran community.
You talk to any veteran who’s put in a claim through DVA and they’ll talk about the difficulty of understanding how the system works, the difficulty of understanding how the three different pieces of legislation all have to operate together, and the anxiety that that produces for them, but also for their families. And this is a system that clearly hasn’t worked for some time. We’ve seen report after report talk about this, and it’s why, when I delivered the Government’s official response to the Royal Commission’s interim report to the Parliament in September, I apologised on behalf of the Government for the failures that have been experienced by our veterans and family community. Failures that have been over many years and many different Governments. But these reports that have built up over time have pointed to the need to reform this legislation. Indeed, it was the first recommendation of the interim report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. And it’s why I’m pleased today that we will be launching the Veteran Legislation Reform Consultation Pathway.
The core of this pathway forward is around changing the legislation so that we close out the two older schemes to support veterans, with all new claims to come under the one remaining scheme that will stay in place. This will see one scheme going forward. It will mean that claims will be easier for veterans, it will mean that it’s easier for the Department to process those claims faster to support our veterans and families. This pathway will form the basis of our consultation with those people that need it most, our veterans and families. We’ll also be engaging with our defence personnel community, with the health experts, with the veterans advocate community and with others that are involved in this very complex system. But I also look forward to working with the Opposition, with the Crossbench parties and the Independents, because it’s so important that together we can deliver this legislative change. By working together, we can deliver better legislation to delivers a better future for our veterans and families. And so I really encourage everyone that’s involved in the veterans’ entitlement schemes, veterans and families, organisations everybody to engage constructively with this process of consultation. Now we have a unique opportunity at this point to provide better legislation we have a unique opportunity to provide better legislation for our veterans and families, communities, an opportunity to save lives.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can you give us an update on the DVA claims backlog? It was at almost 42,000 last year. What is it now and are you on track to clear the backlog by May next year as the Royal Commission recommended?
MINISTER KEOGH: So, the backlog as at the end of January was 42,641 claims and we are starting to see that turn a corner. So when we came into Government, we had a commitment to engage an additional 500 staff in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to get through this backlog. We’ve been undergoing this process now for some months, engaging new staff, getting them trained up as delegates to be able to work through these claims faster. We’ve also seen over those months a continued increase in the number of claims coming in. So we’ve been able to process claims faster, but we’ve had more claims coming in as well. We’re starting to see that number reduce and reduce more quickly as more of those staff come online, fully trained to do that work. And we look forward to seeing that progress. And we still think we’re on target to what the Royal Commission was seeking.
JOURNALIST: But just to clarify that the number is actually higher than it was in May of last year.
MINISTER KEOGH: The number has fluctuated over that time. And one of the things that we see, particularly in December and January, when we have a lot of different staff take leave and everything else as you see an uptick in the claims sitting there as at that close of date. But we are still seeing a steady progress in increasing the number of claims that we’re processing.
JOURNALIST: But that means the backlog itself hasn’t been cleared if there are still 42,000 sitting there.
MINISTER KEOGH: Absolutely, the backlog has not been cleared and that’s why we’re engaging additional staff to get through that backlog. And we’re still on track, based on our projections, to be able to clear it in the time that the Royal Commission sought in its recommendations.
JOURNALIST: How many staff?
MINISTER KEOGH: So at the moment, we have engaged more than 200 additional staff. Of those 500, we’ve got more coming on before the middle of this year and we’ll continue to engage those staff. But there is a lag in the effectiveness of those staff because as they come on board, they have to be trained. That’s quite an extensive process. Because of the complexity of this legislation and the interplay between the three different sets of legislation, it takes time to get that traction. We also have to take trained staff offline from processing to train these additional staff. So it’s not surprising but it’s slow moving getting those claims reduced. But we are seeing more and more claims being processed.
JOURNALIST: Minister, last night in Senate Estimates, there was some pretty disturbing evidence about the use of White Cards and the fact that GPs are reducing access, psychiatrists are now refusing to take those White Cards. It also emerged that your Secretary or your Department hasn’t really met with the Health Minister. Have you met with the Health Minister on this? And if not, will you go and go across the corridor today and speak to him?
MINISTER KEOGH: I have spoken to the Health Minister about these issues and I know my Department is engaging with the Department of Health about these issues. But what’s really important to understand is that whilst we are seeing some GPs saying that they won’t process white cards for our veterans, which quite frankly is really disturbing, we do know that there are many, many GPs, psyches, other medical specialists that do service our veteran community and we encourage veterans where they’re experiencing these sorts of problems to contact the Department because we can direct them to specialists and GPs and other medical practitioners that are willing to accept the White Card and the Gold Card and to make sure they can get the service that they need and deserve.
JOURNALIST: But in some areas it’s just not possible because the available psychiatrist isn’t accepting it and there’s no other option.
MINISTER KEOGH: We are experiencing the same problems in the veterans’ community as we’re seeing across the country, especially in some regional and remote areas where the available availability of GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists is not meeting demand from the general population, let alone for our veteran community. And that is quite concerning. As I say, I’ve spoken to the Minister for Health, my department’s engaging with the Department of Health as well. But we do know that there are people available to service our veterans’ community, despite what we’re seeing from some members of the health profession. And I encourage veterans who are experiencing those difficulties, contact DVA, we will put them in touch with someone who can provide them with the service they need.
JOURNALIST: But Minister, part of the problem is that the fee the government is paying isn’t high enough and that is why these health professionals are rejecting veterans, why they can’t get these appointments. Will the government address that?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I understand that’s what some medical professionals are saying, but I also can see many medical professionals who continue to provide needed service to veterans.
JOURNALIST: But in some of these communities, Minister, in regional communities in particular, which have all these- a large army presence, or they’ve got the bases there, a veteran is expected to travel to metropolitan cities to get basic treatment.
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I think it’s important that we don’t confuse two different issues. So for defence personnel, on bases, they are serviced by Joint Health Command and access health services through the Defence Force.
JOURNALIST: But many veterans live in these communities.
MINISTER KEOGH: But for veterans’ communities, as I say, we have seen, and it’s really disappointing to see reports of medical professionals who are saying they’re not going to service veterans under the DVA entitlement scheme, where they are paid considerably more than they receive under the Medicare scheme. But we are able to put veterans in touch with medical professionals that will service them. And I encourage any veterans that are experiencing these problems to contact DVA so they get the service they need. That’s my first point and really important message to veterans; if you’re experiencing this sort of issue, get in touch with DVA so that we can direct you to someone who can provide you that and is willing to provide that. In terms of the broader issue, which reflects an issue that is confronting the entire country when it comes to access to medical services and not having to pay a gap. I’m engaging with the Health Minister, my department’s engaging with the Health Department, because we do want to improve that circumstance.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the last decade when Labor was in power, we saw a number of veterans suffer great mental anguish while working on border operations. Are you fearful that there may be more boats arriving in Australia and be confident that that won’t happen again?
MINISTER KEOGH: I’m confident that our settings are the right settings when it comes to protecting our borders. And I’m also confident that we are making good improvements around how we support our serving personnel with their mental health concerns, no matter how they arise. It’s really important that everyone recognises that anyone who served one day full time in uniform has access to a DVA White Card, which will provide mental health services and supports to them, and they should access those supports and services. They can also contact Open Arms 24-hour counselling service for our veterans and families. But I’m confident in the settings that we have in place around our border and we are, of course, looking to always improve service delivery for our veterans. That’s exactly what’s at the core of this legislative reform pathway that we’re announcing today to consult with our veterans’ community about, to make sure that people can get their claims processed quickly and that the system is easier for veterans to access.
JOURNALIST: When do you want the legislation actually introduced to Parliament? And will the process be expedited? Because, as you pointed out, the waiting – the wait times are an added burden to the mental health of veterans and contributes to suicide.
MINISTER KEOGH: So one of the key things about what we’re announcing today, and it’s going to be really important, is that the implementation of this sort of legislation will require a lead time so that the veterans community do understand that what’s been legislated, how it will kick in when we’re closing out two schemes, so that there’s one ongoing scheme going forward. That’s part of what we’re consulting about. Obviously, there is a desire, and the Royal Commission outlined that in its recommendation, one, to try and move forward with this legislation as soon as possible. But we have to do that subject to being in consultation with the community and working with all members in Parliament to deliver it as soon as possible, but to get it right as well.
JOURNALIST: Can you give us some idea as well as soon as possible? This year?
MINISTER KEOGH: This is going to be a process of some time of doing this round of consultation. We’ll then look at some draft legislation so that people can get across what may be the technical aspects that come out of this consultation and then we’ll move forward from there into legislation. But I’m not going to put a time frame around it because it’s really important that we’ve got thorough engagement with the veterans and family community and with the opposition, the crossbench and the Independents, so that this doesn’t become a political football. This should be something that we’re all working on together to deliver this better outcome for veterans.
JOURNALIST: What about all the other recommendations that were made in the Interim Report? Increasing protection for Royal Commission witnesses, improving access to service information like medical records, better cooperation on the department on funding, and also, are you going to establish a body, as it suggested, to monitor the progress and implementation of those recommendations?
MINISTER KEOGH: So, as I said in September, when I announced the Government’s formal response to the Royal Commission’s Interim Report recommendations, there were 13 recommendations there. This is furthering the first recommendation which we agreed to back then. The other recommendations were to increase the staffing levels by 500 into DVA and to address the backlog, which we’ve done and we funded in the budget in October. There was funding in the budget in October to address the recommendation about improving the internal systems of DVA. There’s a real need to modernise the computer and IT systems there to support claims processing. We had already removed the artificial staffing cap that the previous Government had imposed on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and across the public service. We’ve entered an arrangement between Defence, DVA and the Royal Commission to support people coming forward with information that they may be concerned is protected by certain classification of information. We’ve also just introduced this week legislation into the Parliament to provide further protection for witnesses coming forward to give in-camera evidence to the Royal Commission to make sure that their personal details are protected under the legislation that governs our Royal Commission legislation.
We’ve also been working with the Royal Commission in respect of better understanding around parliamentary privilege protections. And I know that the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate wrote to the Royal Commission about those issues. In terms of access to information, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Department of Defence have been working together on a codesign model. They’ve been doing a range of consultations over the last few months with veterans and families, widows to make sure that we have a properly designed system that’s easily understood about how access to information about their loved one who has taken their own life can be obtained through Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. And that that is a clearly understood process and it’s a much smoother process than it has historically been. And I look forward to being able to make some more announcements about how that’s going to operate quite soon. So we have been progressing all of these recommendations as quickly as we can because they are so important.
JOURNALIST: So there’s no timeline- is there a timeline on the consultation period?
MINISTER KEOGH: We haven’t put a defined end date on the consultations as a whole because it’s really important. And what I’m going to be doing is going out and engaging directly in roundtables. The Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans’ Affairs will also be engaging in these roundtables around the country. As well as direct engagements, the Department will run engagement and consultation as well. There is a period for direct public comment. People can go to the DVA website, look at this document and provide feedback through that. We’re looking at closing that at this stage in the middle of May. But if we need to push that out, then we will, because getting this consultation right is the key thing.
JOURNALIST: And can you just explain how the proposed new system – how you envisage it actually working?
MINISTER KEOGH: So what we’ve set out in the core of this document is that two of the schemes that currently exist – there’s, three complex schemes – they all interact with each other and create a lot of anxiety. We’ll close out the two older of those schemes from a particular date in the future, and from that date in the future, all new claims would be made under the third scheme, which will be the single ongoing scheme for veterans entitlements and compensation.
JOURNALIST: And the people who have been on the scheme prior to that will remain.
MINISTER KEOGH: They will be grandfathered under those old schemes, so they will still get all the same entitlements that they had under those schemes that they were already under.
Okay, thank you very much, everybody.
Authorised by The Hon Matt Keogh MP
Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling provides 24/7 free confidential crisis support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families on 1800 011 046 or the Open Arms website. Safe Zone Support provides anonymous counselling on 1800 142 072. Defence All-Hours Support Line provides support for ADF personnel on 1800 628 036 or the Defence Health Portal. Defence Member and Family Helpline provides support for Defence families on 1800 624 608