The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Family Support) Bill 2022 (the Bill) expands eligibility for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (DVA) Family Support Package, and provides for the program to deliver new forms of assistance to eligible families. The Package was introduced in 2018 and provides counselling and other support to the families of eligible veterans receiving incapacity payments and to some widowed partners of veterans. The proposed amendments commence from 1 July 2022 and the estimated cost of the changes is $30.2 million over four years (p. iv). The measure was initially announced in the 2021–22 Budget and was expected to cost $5.1 million but the measure proposed in the Bill provides higher amounts of support.
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Andrew Gee stated the proposed changes are in response to Recommendation 19 of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s 2017 report, The Constant Battle: Suicide by Veterans (p. 130), and Recommendation 19.2 of the Productivity Commission’s 2019 report, A Better Way to Support Veterans (p. 840). The Senate Committee recommendation was for DVA to review the support for partners of veterans and identify further assistance and led to the establishment of the Family Support Package. The Productivity Commission recommended specific changes to expand eligibility for the Family Support Package which are included in the Bill.
Family Support Package
Currently, the Family Support Package supports veterans and the families of veterans where the veteran’s service is covered under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 (the MRCA)—this Act covers service from July 2004. To be eligible, the veteran must:
- have rendered warlike service
- be in receipt of or eligible for incapacity payments (for service-related injuries or illnesses) and
- be actively participating in a rehabilitation program.
Widowed partners are also eligible for the Family Support Package where:
- they were the partner of the veteran at the time of their death
- the veteran had rendered warlike service and
- the veteran’s death was a suicide related to their service, or was a service death.
Supports available include help with the costs of child care and life skills/counselling support. Widows may also receive home help assistance such as cooking, cleaning, gardening and maintenance.
The Bill expands eligibility for the Family Support Package in three ways:
Veterans covered by the VEA and the DRCA will need to be in receipt of disability compensation, incapacity payments or the interim Veteran Payment under those schemes to be eligible for the Family Support Package.
Limited to veterans and families experiencing a crisis
While removing some of the eligibility requirements, the Bill proposes that the Family Support Package be limited to veterans or the families of veterans who are experiencing a crisis or are at risk of experiencing a crisis. ‘Crisis’ is not defined in the proposed amendments but additional criteria may be set out in a legislative instrument.
The current criteria do not limit the supports to veterans and families experiencing a crisis, only to those the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission is satisfied are ‘in need of the assistance or benefits’.
The Productivity Commission recommended that the ‘requirement for an identified need’ for support be removed but did not include any recommendation for the supports to be limited to those facing a crisis (p. 840).
Limited to veterans aged under 65
The Bill will introduce a new criterion to limit eligibility for the Family Support Package to veterans aged under 65 years of age at the time the assistance is provided. A similar age limit applies in practice to the current Package as incapacity payments under the MRCA can only be paid up to Age Pension qualifying age (currently 66 years and six months but increasing to 67 from 1 July 2023). The age limit will target the support at the families of working-age veterans but it is unclear why 65 years is used as the limit rather than Age Pension age.
Expanded services and greater flexibility
The Bill provides for services provided under the Family Support Package to be set out in legislative instruments. The Bill inserts into the three legislative schemes a list of the kind of assistance and benefits that may be specified in legislative instruments: child care, counselling, household assistance, services to build capacity (such as financial literacy, relationship skills and mental health first aid), and academic support for children.
The current scheme caps the level of assistance available in different ways depending on the kind of service (either a monetary limit or a limit to a certain number of sessions of counselling). New caps or limits will be included in a legislative instrument, but the Minister stated that a total cap will apply rather than specific limits for different categories of assistance. This will provide flexibility to families in choosing the supports they need.
Under the current scheme, the following limits apply:
- child care assistance of up to $10,000 per financial year for each child under school age, and up to $5,000 per financial year for each primary-school aged child
- access to up to four counselling sessions per year per family group for five years
- for widows, access to four counselling sessions per calendar year for the two years following the veteran’s death
- for widows, household services worth up to $482.50 per week for the two years following the veteran’s death.
Minister Gee stated in his second reading speech that under the enhanced Package up to $7,500 worth of supports could be accessed in the first year and $5,000 in the second year. Any kind of approved service or assistance could be accessed through the Package up to these limits. Families with children will be able to access a further $10,000 a year for each child under school age and $5,000 for each child at primary school age but these additional amounts will not have to be used for child care.
Widowed partners would be able to access up to $28,835 per year for two years following the date their claim is accepted (rather than date of death) as well as the additional $10,000/$5,000 amounts for children until those children reach high school-age.