Veterans’ Affairs

Budget Review 2017–18 Index

Michael Klapdor

The Government has moved to address a number of longstanding veterans’ issues in Budget 2017-18. In particular:

  • providing access to all participants in the British Nuclear Test (BNT) program and all British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) veterans to a Repatriation Health Card–All Conditions (Gold Card)
  • expanding non-liability health care arrangements to cover all mental health conditions and
  • providing funding to improve Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) claims-processing times, computer systems and administrative procedures.

Gold Cards for BNT participants and BCOF veterans

The Government will provide Gold Cards to all BNT participants and BCOF veterans at a cost of $133.1 million over four years.[1] The Gold Cards provide access to DVA funded health services for all medical conditions, regardless of whether the conditions are related to an individual’s service.

From October 1952 to October 1957,   British atomic weapon detonation tests were conducted at Monte Bello islands off the west coast of Western Australia and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia.[2] For the purposes of veterans’ entitlements and health studies, the term ‘BNT participants’  refers not only to those who witnessed or were present when the main detonations occurred,  but also to those involved in test-related activities at the sites up to 1965. In addition to the main detonations, six hundred minor trials were conducted between 1953 and 1963 at the test areas, including the testing of bomb components. Many of these trials resulted in large quantities of radioactive contamination and exposure to radiation for military personnel and civilians.[3]

Both Australian and British military personnel were involved in the tests along with civilian participants such as scientists, engineers and police. The exact number of Australian participants has been difficult to verify, particularly in regards to the number of Indigenous people in the Maralinga area during the BNTs. DVA compiled a nominal roll of Australian participants in 2001 and this has been refined over time. Numbers published in 2001 suggested around 16,716 Australian participants (including 8,126 military personnel and 8,590 civilians—including ten Indigenous Australians).[4] The 2003 Review of Veterans’ Entitlements stated the nominal roll contained 15,406 names including 8,035 military personnel and 7,371 civilians—including 25 Indigenous people.[5]

There have been a series of studies on adverse health outcomes for BNT participants and their families­, particularly in relation to the incidence of cancer and other health problems relating to radiation.[6]

BCOF consisted of the armed forces from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and India who occupied Japan after the surrender in 1945. Australian occupation forces were located in Japan from 1945 to 1951 and were initially based in the Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures.[7] DVA has estimated there were around 17,000 Australians who served in BCOF.[8]

There have been decades-long controversies over the compensation arrangements for BNT participants, BCOF veterans and their families. Both groups have sought entitlements that were primarily reserved for those who served in war or war-like conditions, citing the hazardous nature of their service and, in the case of BCOF, the commitment of Prime Minister Chifley to provide ‘full benefits’ under the Repatriation Act 1920.[9]

Providing Gold Cards to the remaining BNT participants, those in proximity to the tests and to BCOF veterans will provide many more individuals with access to DVA-funded treatments, including for a range of conditions unrelated to the nuclear tests or any military service. It will also provide access to these DVA-funded treatments to a range of civilians not currently eligible, including Indigenous people at, or near the test sites.[10]

This will be of significant benefit to those remaining individuals and their families. However, most BNT participants and BCOF veterans have died in the decades since the tests and the occupation. DVA estimates that approximately 1,800 surviving BNT participants and 1,100 surviving BCOF veterans will benefit from the measure.[11]

This measure will require amending legislation.

Expanded mental health care services

Amidst ongoing concern over the mental health of service-personnel and veterans, particularly younger veterans, the Government will provide $33.5 million over four years to provide access to mental health treatments to current and former Australian Defence Force (ADF) members for any recognised mental health condition—without the need to demonstrate that the condition is linked to their service. Currently, such non-liability health care is limited to specific conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and alcohol and substance abuse disorders.[12] The measure will allow an estimated 2,000 current and former ADF members to benefit from mental health treatments.[13]

The Budget also includes an additional $8.5 million over four years to provide access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to the partners and children of DVA Gold or White Cards (White Cards provide access to treatment for specific conditions) and to ex-partners of current and former ADF members for up to five years after separation, or for the duration of any co-parenting responsibilities for their dependent children.  A separate measure will see $9.8 million provided to a range of suicide-prevention pilot programs.

These measures will not require legislation.

Administrative improvements and other measures

The difficulty of making claims, delays in processing and problems with interacting with DVA have been cited by ADF members, veterans and veterans groups as an exacerbating factor for many suffering mental health conditions and for those dealing with the transition from military to civilian life.[14] The Budget includes $13.5 million aimed at improving the claims process and reducing the current backlog of claims. A separate $166.6 million will be allocated towards broader changes in the way services are delivered by DVA. The reform program, known as ‘Veteran Centric Reform’ will include upgrades in computer systems, changes to business processes and ‘piloting improved services’ for veterans and families.

According to the Government, the ‘improved services’ are intended to ensure the long-term ‘financial sustainability’ of DVA’s military compensation schemes;[15] This could give rise to concerns that the focus will be on cheaper, rather than better service delivery. However, the modernisation of computer systems and the introduction of a single coherent system to process and manage claims was one of the recommendations of the 2016 Senate committee report on the mental health of ADF members and veterans.[16]

These measures are unlikely to require legislation.

 


[1].          The budget figures in this brief have taken from the following document unless otherwise sourced: Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2017–18, 2017.

[2].          Review of Veterans’ Entitlements (J Clarke, chair), Report of the Review of Veterans’ Entitlements, (The Clarke Review), Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), January 2003, p. 373.

[3].          M Carter, F Robotham, K Wise, G Williams and P Crouch, Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests in Australia: Dosimetry 2006, DVA, Canberra, 2006, p. 6.

[4].          N Minchin, ‘Answer to question on notice: Atomic Testing: Compensation’, [Questioner: L Allison], Question 3625, Senate, Debates, 22 August 2001, p. 26428.

[5].          Review of Veterans’ Entitlements, op. cit., p. 375

[6].          See summary of these studies in A Biggs and P Yeend, Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006, Bills digest, 31, 2006–07, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 9 October 2006, pp. 3–7.

[7].          Review of Veterans’ Entitlements, op. cit., p. 362.

[8].          Ibid.

[9].          P Sutherland, ‘Analysis of the possible entitlement to service pension of members of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force’, DVA, Canberra, 2011, pp. 2–3.

[10].       C Blanco, ‘”60 years too late”: Yami Lester on gold card for Indigenous people victim of nuclear tests’, NITV News, 9 May 2017.

[11].       Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2017–18: budget related paper no. 1.4B: Defence Portfolio (Department of Veterans’ Affairs), p. 18.

[12].       DVA, ‘Factsheet HSV109 – Non-liability health care’, DVA website, last updated 26 April 2017.

[13].       DVA’, Budget 2017–18: Mental health treatment for current and former members of the Australian Defence Force—expanded access, factsheet, DVA, Canberra, 2017.

[14].       Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, Report of the inquiry into the mental health of ADF members and veterans, The Senate, Canberra, March 2016, pp. 102–114.

[15].       Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2017–18, 2017, p. 179.

[16].       Ibid., p. 116.

 

All online articles accessed May 2017. 

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