Opinion: Renee Wilson, chief executive officer of Australian War Widows NSW, reflects on the impact of the recent federal budget on veterans’ families and provides insight into streamlining the system.
‘I read a commentary over the last week saying that veterans were “winners” in this federal budget.
While the investment within the veteran system is long overdue and couldn’t be more needed, I do have to question some of the initiatives being funded and can’t help but ask myself, is this value for money? I know the 44,000 veterans in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (DVA) claims backlog certainly hope it is!
My main concern with the funded initiatives is that they are built to prop up a system that is already not fit for purpose — systems and processes that actively work against veterans and their families in trying to access entitlements, as the Royal Commission has already shown.
What is also concerning to me is once again, veterans’ families and widows remain on the outside and there is almost no relief for them in this budget. How are we, as an Australian community, supporting them? How are we mitigating the impacts of veteran suicide and ill health on their children, our children? How are we supporting the people that are very much on the frontline of supporting our veterans?
Funding and resources are scarce and need to be balanced against other very big issues that affect our entire population. Which is why it is important for funds to be allocated in a way that produces positive outcomes and reduces other costs. Funding that provides Band-Aid solutions to significant problems is, in my opinion, wasteful. While we are on the topic of waste, since 2017, successive governments have invested in DVA’s transformation and claims processing improvements to the tune of more than $800 million. One can’t help but ask what has the outcome been for that investment?
As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that we used to create them.” So why is it more money is being spent to prop up processes and systems that seem to have created more problems than they have solved?
Having a claim processed faster by DVA might take some initial pressure off inside the 1 in 5 Australian homes connected to Defence, but what happens when those 44,000 people currently in the claims back log try to access their entitlements? Particularly after liability for their illnesses and injuries is accepted. As the spouse of a veteran in his 40s with a gold card, I can tell you the system is already buckling. Bills from veterans’ service providers are not being paid and case managers are overworked. While these problems have existed (in my personal experience) for years, they will be exacerbated by those 44,000 people once they come in the front door.
Some might be surprised to know that more than 70 per cent of initial DVA liability claims are accepted on first pass. This is higher for claims made under the most contemporary piece of legislation, which sits at 80 per cent. In fact, it is difficult to find an exact figure of those initial liability claims that are rejected in the first instance. Anecdotally, however, we do know this is a high proportion. Noting this simple math, one has to again ask, was a cost benefit approach taken to assessing the policy proposal for more staff to process claims? If there was, did it consider alternative approaches? For example, a risk management approach to claims processing, determining which claims are assessed as anything other than high risk? Even more radically, has a cost benefit analysis occurred on the removal of a claims process all together, with the exception of conditions which are genetic, or personality based?
Fundamental reform is required. The Royal Commission has already established this and while it might be too early to decide on what that reform looks like, there are certainly some innovations that can already take place. There is still room for strong leadership from the DVA and the government in using the learnings to affect real, positive, and lasting change.
It starts by removing red tape. Embracing responsibility for the impacts of service on the families of veterans and working with them to develop policies and initiatives that support them. We need to help them and not just “vicariously” through their veteran. It starts by removing arbitrary time limit where widows only have two years to have a “crisis” to a nonlinear system that is needs based. We need investment that produces benefit for veterans and their families and mitigates the challenges they face. We need families supported. Children need barrier-free access to appropriate psychology and psychiatry treatment; spouses, and parents the same. Widows need ongoing and episodic needs-based support. Families of veterans need education, respite, respect and each other.
Because put very simply, this is what the Australian community expects. This is what veterans expect, and most importantly this is what widows and veteran families deserve. Families must be more than a feel-good by-line in policy. They are a critical element of the veteran system and if we are to provide the confidence to Australian families to take on the defence life and lifestyle, we must show them that they, and their veteran, will be taken care of. It is time our government supported this, and we urge them to hear this call.”