Bills Digest No. 231  1997-98 Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card) Bill 1998


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WARNING:
This Digest was prepared for debate. It reflects the legislation as introduced and does not canvass subsequent amendments. This Digest does not have any official legal status. Other sources should be consulted to determine the subsequent official status of the Bill.

CONTENTS

Passage History
Purpose
Background
Main Provisions
Endnotes
Contact Officer and Copyright Details

Passage History

Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card) Bill 1998

Date Introduced: 3 June 1998

House: House of Representatives

Portfolio: Veterans' Affairs

Commencement: 1 January 1999

Purpose

To extend full repatriation health care benefits (the Gold Card) to Australian veterans who are aged 70 or over and who have World War II qualifying service.

Background

The Gold Card is the popular name for the 'Repatriation Health Card - For All Conditions' which is issued by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This card enables the holder to access the full range of repatriation health care benefits. The health care benefits available to holders of the Gold Card are equivalent to top of the range cover in a private health fund. The benefits include treatment as a private patient in a public or private hospital, choice of doctor, pharmaceuticals at the concessional rate, optical care, physiotherapy, dental care, podiatry and chiropractic services. The benefits are for all medical conditions, irrespective of whether the conditions resulted from war service. The Gold Card also entitles veterans to transport to and from their medical treatment.

There are 257 639 veterans and their dependants already receiving the Gold Card,(1) of whom 135 000 are World War II veterans(2). The Gold Card is not issued to all veterans. At present the following groups are eligible:

  • All veterans and nurses of World War I
  • All prisoners of war
  • All female World War II veterans
  • All veterans receiving 100% or more disability pension
  • All veterans receiving 50%+ disability pension and any amount of service pension
  • Veterans who receive a service pension and qualify for treatment under the income and assets test
  • War widows, war widowers and dependant children.

The Government estimates that this measure will make a further 50 000 male World War II veterans eligible. It is anticipated by the Department of Veterans Affairs that most of these veterans will be self-funded retirees. At present some may be receiving a level of service pension but have not qualified for health care under the current income and assets test. The average age of World War II veterans is 76.5 years.

Who will miss out?

  • Veterans of World War II who are under the age of 70 on 1 January 1999 will not be entitled to the Gold Card until their 70th birthday. Given that it is almost 54 years since the end of World War II, only those servicemen who enlisted at a very young age will miss out. No numbers are available, but popular legend has it that a small number of midshipmen enlisted at the age of 14 and served in an area of hostile enemy action during World War II. However, the numbers are expected to be extremely small. The imposition of an age limit is unusual. When free medical treatment was provided to World War I veterans in 1973, no age barrier was imposed. Similarly, in 1988, the Gold Card was provided to female veterans of World War II without an age limit. Given the very small number of veterans involved, the age limit may be unnecessary.
  • Veterans who do not meet the service criteria. Qualifying service is defined in Section 7A of the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. The major test for qualifying service is that the veteran has, in operations against the enemy, 'incurred danger from hostile forces of the enemy'. Most World War II veterans have this qualifying service as a result of their service outside Australia during the period of hostilities from 3 September 1939 to 29 October 1945 inclusive. Certain World War II service within Australia while in danger from hostile forces of the enemy is also classified as qualifying service. Veterans who do not meet the criteria for qualifying service include servicemen who enlisted to serve but were not sent overseas and were not in an area of Australia that came under hostile enemy action. Some veterans enlisted during World War II, served within Australia and later served in Korea. These people may now be aged more than 70 years, but they will not be eligible for the Gold Card under these arrangements.
  • Allied and Commonwealth veterans who served with a Commonwealth or Allied force during World War II will not be eligible, unless they actually lived in Australia before enlisting in Commonwealth or Allied forces.

Costs

It is estimated that to extend full repatriation health care to eligible World War II veterans will cost an additional $480 million over 4 years. $95.7 million is budgeted for 1998-1999. As a consequence of this initiative, funding for some medical and pharmaceutical payments currently being made to World War II veterans by the Department of Health and Family Services will be reduced.(3)

Impact on private health insurance

Eligible veterans who presently have private health insurance will find that the Gold Card provides comprehensive health care coverage, and may decide to relinquish their private health insurance after 1 January 1999. World War II veterans on waiting lists for operations in public hospitals will be eligible for private hospital care after 1 January 1999.

Comments

The extension of the Gold Card was announced by the Prime Minister, Hon John Howard MP, on 27 April 1998.(4) It has received almost universal approval. The RSL applauded the Government for its recognition of the contribution made by World War II veterans, saying that:

Veterans of World War I received an automatic entitlement to the Gold Card 55 years after the end of that war. It is now timely and fair that our veterans of the Second World War be similarly recognised for their outstanding commitment and sacrifice to Australia...
We would expect similar arrangements to apply to veterans of subsequent conflicts as they reach their senior years.(5)

However, Peter Walsh, writing in the Australian Financial Review on 26 May 1998 questioned whether Australia should be extending coverage of the Gold Card to all eligible World War II veterans. He wrote that:

Fifty thousand old diggers will get gold-plated medical services for nothing, even if they are millionaires...Lest the RSL be annoyed by this criticism, I remind it that affluent World War II soldiers who have already died - about half I understand - did not receive such benefits.
If Australia could not afford them when it paid its way in the world, we cannot afford them now, let alone the multitude of other claims they will provoke.(6)

In supporting the extension of full repatriation health care benefits to eligible World War II veterans, the Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Laurie Ferguson MP, stated that:

Whilst the opposition is happy to consider sound proposals, it would be unsustainable to constantly extend the gold card to more and more groups. Apart from anything else, such an approach could soon endanger the continuation of the level of benefits enjoyed by current cardholders.(7)

Philosophy behind providing repatriation benefits to veterans

The basic principles which have governed Repatriation legislation in Australia were stated by Justice Toose in his 1975 Report of the Independent Enquiry into the Repatriation System.(8) They include:

  • Australia is indebted to those who served it in time of war by enlisting in the Armed Forces, thereby endangering their lives and health and probably suffering economic loss
  • As a consequence, the nation has a duty to ensure that those who have served, together with their dependants, are properly cared for
  • Those who have served overseas or in a proclaimed theatre of war, are likely to have encountered greater danger and/or more arduous service than those who had home service and, accordingly, they should have a more extensive cover
  • Compensation and other benefits should be available as a matter of right and not as a welfare hand-out, and in cases of doubt, the doubt should be resolved in favour of those claiming to be entitled.

Brief history of medical treatment cards for returned service personnel

The Commonwealth's repatriation initiatives to provide benefits and opportunities for service people and their dependants began during World War I when it was recognised that returned soldiers, and dependants of the dead and injured, would require continued assistance in the form of pensions, medical care, allowances for dependants and many other benefits.(9) Through 'repatriation'-a uniquely Australian use of the word which came to mean all the assistance given to ex-service people, the nation was able to recognise the sacrifice of the dead through assistance to their families, and to help the living achieve an effective return to civilian life. The provision of health care and benefits to older veterans may be seen as part of Australia's ongoing obligation to honour and reward those who served.

Entitlement to free medical treatment was initially confined to service-related disabilities. However, from 1924 onwards, Commonwealth governments have progressively expanded entitlement to treatment for non-service related disabilities to certain prescribed categories of veterans and their dependants, and to some civilians.

  • In 1973 (55 years after the end of World War I) all Boer War and World War I veterans were granted free universal medical care through the provision of a Personal Treatment Entitlement Card (PTEC), a fore-runner to the Gold Card.
  • In 1974 free medical treatment was extended to all Australian ex-prisoners of war, and to all ex-service personnel suffering from cancer, whether or not their disease was related to their war service.
  • From 1 January 1998 all World War II ex-servicewomen were provided with full medical treatment entitlements. This was in response to a government initiated inquiry that highlighted the disadvantages suffered by female World War II veterans. In particular the review indicated that women had been paid less than men throughout their war service and had not been eligible for the same level of repatriation assistance after the war.

Main Provisions

The effect of Item 1 of Schedule 1 is to amend Section 7A (which defines 'qualifying service') so that it also applies to eligibility for a Gold Card (Section 85) and eligibility for a Seniors Health Card (Section 118V). The Explanatory Memorandum states that the amendment to section 118V corrects a 'minor technical deficiency' in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986.

Item 2 adds a new subsection 85(4A) providing the criteria that will be used to determine if a World War II veteran is eligible for full repatriation health benefits. The criteria to be used are:

  1. the veteran is aged 70 or more, and
  2. the veteran must meet the criterion of 'eligible service' as defined in section 7A, and that service must have occurred between 3 September 1939 and 29 October 1945 inclusive (the 'period of hostilities' for World War II as defined in subsection 5B(1) of the Principal Act).

New paragraph (4A)(c) provides that a veteran is not eligible for treatment until he or she has applied for the Gold Card or been notified by the Department of Veterans' Affairs of eligibility.

Endnotes

  1. The figure comes from the Department of Veterans' Affairs and is the number at 30 March 1998.
  2. Dept of Veterans' Affairs, News release, 27 April 1998.
  3. Budget Measures 1998-99, (Budget paper No. 2, 1998-99), 1-111.
  4. John Howard, Press release, 27 April 1998, 'Gold Card boost for Australian World War II veterans'.
  5. RSL, Media Release, 27 April 1998, 'RSL applauds grant of Gold Card to World War II veterans'.
  6. Peter Walsh, 'The folly of an overkill', Australian Financial Review, 26 May 1998, 21.
  7. House of Representatives, Debates, 28 May 1998, 3915.
  8. Independent Enquiry into the Repatriation System, Report, AGPS, Canberra, June 1975, Volume 3 Summary of report, 4-5.
  9. Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act 1917-1918.

Contact Officer and Copyright Details

Rosemary Bell
18 June 1988
Bills Digest Service
Information and Research Services

This paper has been prepared for general distribution to Senators and Members of the Australian Parliament. While great care is taken to ensure that the paper is accurate and balanced, the paper is written using information publicly available at the time of production. The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Information and Research Services (IRS). Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion. Readers are reminded that the paper is not an official parliamentary or Australian government document.

IRS staff are available to discuss the paper's contents with Senators and Members
and their staff but not with members of the public.

ISSN 1328-8091
© Commonwealth of Australia 1998

Except to the extent of the uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the prior written consent of the Parliamentary Library, other than by Members of the Australian Parliament in the course of their official duties.

Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1998.



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