Veterans’ Affairs chief promises change within the next year

The head of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has vowed to walk away from the job if she can’t improve ex-defence personnel’s experiences with the beleaguered agency within the next year.

Liz Cosson has also promised to change the adversarial culture of the agency, which has been under fire for the bureaucratic and ruthless way it has dealt with veterans for many years.

In the wake of a damning Productivity Commission report, which recommended the department undergo “fundamental reform”, Ms Cosson has asked veterans fed up with the system to give the agency another go.

It comes amidst calls for a royal commission into the rate of suicides among former defence personnel, including Afghanistan veteran Jesse Bird who took his own life after his claim for permanent impairment was rejected.

It also comes after the Commonwealth Ombudsman gave the agency a panning, after it both underpaid a Navy veteran known as “Mr A” more than $500,000 and chased him for $100,000 in debts.

Ms Cosson – who served in the defence force for 30 years – said the agency had made huge changes since both cases, but the Productivity Commission report was a chance to “ramp it up [and] put it on steroids”.

“I acknowledge and I’ve owned up to this, we haven’t made quick decisions. We have not been the best we can be. We have been adversarial. But we are changing. And that’s what I want to send as a message. We are changing and we are listening to the veterans,” Ms Cosson said.

“We want to recreate that trust and reestablish some hope for our veteran community.”

She hit out at negative media coverage, which she believed was “actually hurting our veterans” and making them afraid to turn to the agency for help, and asked people to raise roadblocks with her directly.

“Tell me if we’re still getting it wrong and I will work with you to get it right because I’m in this job for four more years and if I’m still part of the problem in 12 months I will hand over. But I want to get this right,” Ms Cosson said.

She also urged people to get in touch with her if they’d had a bad experience with a particular delegate.

“It’s not about blame, it’s not about sacking, it’s about helping that frontline person get reskilled,” she said.

“I just want them to tell me if they’re having a bad experience because there’s so many good staff out there who are being dragged into [the claim] ‘no one cares in DVA’.”

“We have not been the best we can be. We have been adversarial.”

While the Productivity Commission retreated from its earlier recommendation for the department to be abolished entirely, it wants two of the three military compensation acts – the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (MRCA) and Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation [Defence-related Claims] Act (DRCA) – to be harmonised, with the oldest scheme – the Veterans’ Entitlements Act – to be phased down.

Ms Cosson said it would likely take years – and a fair bit of courage – to reform the complex and distinct schemes.

“There are going to have to be trade-offs and what’s happened over time is that we haven’t wanted to trade off anything and I think it’s time now to build a new piece of legislation that’s fit for today but fit for the next 100 years,” she said.

“We can either just keep Band-Aiding little bits or we all have the courage to say we need to take this forward, not only the courage of government but the courage of our veterans’ community to all come together now.

“The more we divide ourselves and just cherrypick things, we’re not going to deliver the real reform we’re crying out for.”

The commission also recommended there be a single pathway for all reviews, regardless of which scheme the veteran is claiming under.

As it stands, if an internal review of the decision is unsuccessful, claims made under MRCA and VEA go to the Veterans’ Review Board, while some VEA decisions and most DRCA claims go before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The department has spent more than $14 million in the last two financial years on external law firms related to appeals though the AAT, but Ms Cosson said some of the money spent on external law firms was on advice unrelated to appeals.

“For example we wanted to be able to provide assistance dogs for our veterans who have mental health conditions and a diagnosis of PTSD. I needed to make sure I could do that so I needed to get legal advice,” she said.

She also said only a fraction of cases went to the administrative appeals tribunal – 1.5 per cent last financial year.

But she acknowledged the toll the appeals process took.

“Yes there are examples where we have not been good in dealing with our veterans and families,” Ms Cosson said.

“We haven’t shown empathy, we have been adversarial. That was part of our culture but in the last three years, things have changed.”

Veterans can email Department of Veterans’ Affairs Liz Cosson at [email protected]
If this story has raised issues for you, you can contact:

Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling – 1800 011 046
beyondblue – 1300 224 636
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800

The Canberra Times – 19 July 2019

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The Canberra Times wants to hear from veterans experiencing issues dealing with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Share your story below (in the table within the article) or email us at [email protected] . We will never share your information or disclose your identity without your permission.

Comments

  1. Leonard Michael says

    Agree with the general sentiments expressed by Daryl William.

  2. Daryl WILLIAM says

    SRCA/DRCA links within these Acts are now becoming more and more relevant to new claimants,but via related sections, they in my opinion at least (allegedly) diminish veteran’s rights and thus remain within the realms of reasonable dissent. I base this observation upon black & white priorities of Royal ascent dates and dates of clinical onsets frozen in time Vs more palpable & benevolent concepts and references within Acts which relate to the delegate’s role and the delegate’s abilities to opine define and decide without it having a detrimental effect upon the delegate’s career prospects. Their needs to be greater ”overall” supportive options via parallel linking and or the current linking sections with ”Acts” reviewed with Veteran support as ‘the cultural’ priority. And, although this is more often than not ”stated” or implied in correspondence, it must be just as frustrating and disheartening to passionate delegates as it is to the veteran when a decision goes against a claimant with red tape apparently to only winner in such scenarios, when it doesn’t have to be like this. Similarly, VEA/MRCA links referred to as ”offset” related sections remain biased against the intent our original Commonwealth lawmakers enacted, especially considering the career length potentials of member’s of the ADF being between 1 day and 50 years, but, purely and simply, because overall, from a SRCA, VEA, MRCA, DRCA rear view mirror perspective, it was impossible to forecast 118 years ( and counting) of evolution within our Sovereign society and, the defence thereof. And now it is back in the hands of internal agencies to perhaps further discombobulate when in fact, the only way forward as I at least see it, with transparency, and without fear of favour, remains via a Royal Commission into the department, with the department itself supporting such a Royal Commission in order to remain impartial. A Royal Commission that I considered worthy of recommending under oath and publicly via Case Study 40 of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse 2016. DVA should be given the fundamental right to defend it’s (evolving) reputation without veterans and society assuming the current DVA is the DVA of Pre case study 40 and the DVA of Pre Oct 2016 Senate estimates inquiry.

  3. Thank god for that
    Really needed in the military community I’m hoping that it helps all of them now

  4. Ian Mawson says

    All the best. Remember there are some 9000 Rifle Coy Butterworth veterans who have been trashed time and time again in regard to proper entitlements re operational service. Many are hurting

  5. Butch & Jan Mathew says

    Changes have been needed for years, Even when I discharged in 66
    help was very hard to access

  6. Bill Howard says

    several years ago I contacted an RSL advocate to submit a claim for my back, shoulders, hearing and skin complaints.
    DVA accepted all but my shoulders, stating the doctor found nothing wrong. I agree that the doctor found nothing wrong because he did not examine them. I thought he may have accepted my problems just by listening to the noises my shoulders made.
    I spoke to several ex-servicemen and was advised not to bother with an appeal as it would be either rejected or ignored anyway.
    Having read the article, I now have a bit more confidence in submitting an appeal because my shoulders are deteriorating.

  7. George Kunowski says

    Takes months to get anything done, then decisions are based on doctrine and not the individuals needs, wants and personal issues. Get rid of the public service mentality and culture and put people in roles who really want to help and are not concerned about their toil and how many sick days they have. Good luck Ms Cosson I reckon you have just written your resignation letter. DVA is too big a monster to change.

  8. Russell Linwood says

    At last, a leader with ‘balls’ (so to speak). I recommend everyone take up the offer and work with a leader willing to lead and see what can be done to help fix the system.