House debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024


Veterans' Entitlements, Treatment and Support (Simplification and Harmonisation) Bill 2024; Second Reading

9:32 am

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today, I am pleased to introduce the Veterans' Entitlements, Treatment and Support (Simplification and Harmonisation) Bill 2024, the VETS Bill.

This bill delivers on the Albanese government's commitment to implement the first recommendation of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide's Interim report.

In August 2022 the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide released its Interim report.


The royal commission found that the 'veterans entitlement system is so complicated that it adversely affects the mental health of some veterans'.

Veteran claims for benefits and support are currently assessed under three different pieces of legislation depending on the time someone served, and the nature of their service. Often veterans have had claims dealt with under all three pieces of legislation.

This is the result of decades of piecemeal change and fringe reform built on top of a century of different veterans' entitlements legislation.

The royal commission's first recommendation was that legislative reform be implemented to simplify and harmonise the system. The government accepted this recommendation a month later.

That is what this government committed to doing, and we've set about the mammoth task of embarking on the most significant reform of the veterans' entitlements legislation since the introduction of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 20 years ago. Indeed, this bill could be seen as the most significant shift in approach to veterans' entitlements legislation in the nearly 40 years since the Veterans' Entitlements Act was introduced.

Anyone who has engaged with the current veteran compensation system will tell you the system is unnecessarily complicated, difficult to understand and has negatively impacted veterans. This same complexity has directly contributed to delays, inconsistent processing, uncertain outcomes and claims backlogs.

Calls to simplify the current arrangements have been kicking around for years, and I'm proud the Albanese government has taken on the challenge. This reform will significantly reduce the complexity of the system, ultimately giving veterans and families the support they need, faster.

Since the royal commission's recommendation in mid-2022, through to this year, we've consulted on this proposal widely because we know that the best outcomes will come with the involvement of those who have been personally impacted by, and interacted with, the veterans' compensation system.

The royal commission called on government to consider outstanding recommendations from the 2019 Productivity Commission report, A better way to support veterans in developing this legislation.

We sought feedback on those recommendations in 2022. In early 2023, I released our Veterans' Legislation Reform Consultation Pathway for consultation. We held 17 face-to-face consultations across the country and six webinars, many of which I attended personally.

The government considered this feedback and developed an exposure draft of this legislation, released early this year.

Critically, as a result of these consultations, we are adding a new payment called the additional disablement amount—or ADA—to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

In our recent consultations with veterans around the country, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive on this draft legislative proposal. Resulting from this further consultation, the bill introduced today now sees veterans in receipt of Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act payments automatically transition to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004incapacity payment system.

I know that for many in the veteran community, the seriousness with which the Albanese government takes supporting our veterans was evident in this year's federal budget.

The budget showed that our work in properly resourcing the Department of Veterans' AffairsDVA—and hiring more than 500 additional permanent staff to successfully eradicate the DVA claims backlog we inherited would see an additional $6.5 billion in delayed benefits and supports flow to veterans and families over five years.

The budget was also evidence that these legislative changes are not about the government saving money; rather, this year's federal budget set aside an additional $222 million for veteran and family entitlements over the first two years of operation.

Veterans have personally shared with me that they never thought such a significant, positive reform for the veteran community would occur in their lifetimes.

W hat is it ?

At the heart of the government's legislative proposal is that on 1 July 2026 all veterans' rehabilitation and compensation claims will be dealt with under a single piece of legislation, the 21st century Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004.

As a principle, this new approach will mean that all veterans will engage with DVA regarding their rehabilitation and compensation entitlements on the basis of just one piece of legislation—one that will operate without the confusing multi-act considerations that characterise many current claims.

This is a step further than what was proposed in the most recent review of veterans' compensation legislation. The 2019 Productivity Commission report recommended taking the three current acts and combining these into two pieces of legislation. However, this change would have produced a whole new range of complexity.

What we have done is to move to just one piece of ongoing legislation.

This bill will amend the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004—you might have heard it referred to as the MRCA; the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988—known as the DRCA; and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, or VEA, to be streamlined into a single piece of ongoing legislation of veteran compensation and other entitlements which will be continued in the MRCA.

These changes will also introduce a range of enhancements for an 'improved ongoing MRCA that will make access to entitlements easier and fairer.

These changes will remove the need for many veterans to make choices that are often complex and, in many instances, subject to individual circumstances, which can change over time. It will also remove duplication in claims lodgement.

The changes will also hugely simplify the training, processing and knowledge burdens on claims advocates and DVA staff.

Making processes and administration easier for DVA is not an end in itself, but rather an outcome that will directly and positively affect veterans by allowing the department to be well positioned to focus efforts on vulnerable veterans.

O verview of the bill

We are proposing that the new system will commence on 1 July 2026. The extended commencement allows time to ensure the veteran community is well informed on what these important changes mean for them and that individuals can consider their circumstances.

It will also ensure the appropriate training and system changes have been implemented for advocates and within DVA without hold up.

Those receiving benefits immediately prior to the commencement of the new arrangements will continue to do so under grandparenting arrangements without any reduction in payments. This is a key feature of the new model that is designed to give financial certainty to veterans and their families. The provisions also operate to ensure that any payments being received will continue to be indexed annually.

In essence, the changes in this bill will:

        Turning now to the detail: schedule 1of the bill contains the key provisions that will have the effect of consolidating compensation and rehabilitation entitlements into a single ongoing piece of legislation.

        Changes will be made to close off the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act and the Veterans' Entitlements Act to compensation claims from 1 July 2026. All members and former members of the Defence Force regardless of when they served or the classification of their service will claim under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. In the meantime, all veterans will still be able to lodge claims under their current applicable legislation until 30 June 2026, or they can delay their claims until the new framework applies, or they can decide to do nothing. These decisions will be up to individual veterans.

        Income support payments such as the service pension will continue to be made under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

        Amendments in this schedule will also open the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to medical conditions already accepted under other Acts. This means that, if a veteran has had their condition accepted under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act or the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the condition will be recognised under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. This will ensure that those suffering a worsening of their accepted condition can receive benefits and payments under the single ongoing act, with no need to reprosecute the earlier claim.

        Coverage for service only covered in the Veterans' Entitlements Act, including peacekeeping, operational and hazardous service and British nuclear testing, will be moved into the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

        Important changes will also be made to permanent impairment payments, to make them easier to claim and administer.

              Conditions arising from the use of tobacco products prior to 1 January 1998 will continue to be recognised, now under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

              A new liability pathway will be introduced into the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to allow claims to be accepted simply on the basis that the member was on duty when the injury was sustained as is presently the case under Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988.

              It also transfers recipients of Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988, or the DRCA, incapacity payments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the MRCA, for people being paid compensation under the relevant provisions of the old DRCA immediately before the commencement date without the need for a claim to be lodged under the MRCA.

              This transition will occur from the date of commencement to the MRCA. In addition, the deduction of five per cent of the person's normal weekly earnings from the amount of compensation received under DRCA will cease as this reduction does not exist in the MRCA. This will mean a beneficial outcome for DRCA incapacity payment recipients upon their transition to the MRCA.

              Schedule 2 deals with important changes designed to enhance the benefits and payments available under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

              Compensation for funeral expenses will be consolidated in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

                  The legislative basis for benefits like the acute support package, household services and attendant care, the Victoria Cross allowance, ex gratia payments and recognition supplements for former prisoners of war will all move to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

                  Some aspects of veteran treatment arrangements will move from the Veterans' Entitlements Act to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, including the legislative basis for non-liability health care and the Repatriation Commission's powers to determine specific treatment programs and classes of eligible persons. These moves will result in no change in coverage.

                  A legislative basis for the Repatriation Commission to accept liability based on a presumption that the person's defence service caused their injury or disease—presumptive liability—will operate by providing the commission with an instrument-making power to specify the relevant injuries or diseases.

                  A new payment called the additional disablement amount, or ADA, will also be introduced into the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Similar to the extreme disablement adjustment, or EDA, under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, this new payment will benefit veterans over pension age with significant service-related impairment. Like the EDA, dependants of deceased ADA veterans will also have access to the gold card and other benefits in the event of the veteran's death.

                  Schedule 3will standardise the merits review process for veterans compensation entitlements decisions. The internal DVA reconsideration process will be removed and jurisdiction given to the Veterans' Review Board, a specialist veterans tribunal to review Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988, DRCA, original determinations. A second tier of merits review to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal—the AAT—will remain in place. Although DRCA reviews would naturally cease under the model in the medium term, these changes will commence 60 days after royal assent, to harmonise the review pathway across the acts and provide consistency and certainty over the initial period of the new model.

                  Sections dealing with the powers and functions of the Veterans' Review Board will also move from the Veterans' Entitlements Act into the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

                  Schedule 4will simplify the governance arrangements for the veterans entitlements system. The Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission will be merged, leaving the Repatriation Commission as the single body administering all veterans compensation legislation, consolidating the powers of the existing two commissions.

                  This change will remove duplication of responsibilities and provide greater administrative clarity about governance matters.

                  Schedule 5will move provisions dealing with the Repatriation Medical Authority and Specialist Medical Review Council from the Veterans' Entitlements Act into the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, with no change to either body's powers or responsibilities, to ultimately make engaging with the system more straightforward.

                  There will now be a change, however, so that where the Repatriation Medical Authority updates a statement of principles, or SOP, between the veteran's primary and reviewable decision, the version of the SOP which is most beneficial to the veteran's circumstances will now be applied.

                  Schedule 6makes important changes to when the disability compensation payment will stop under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

                  Currently, under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the disability compensation payment cannot be paid for the 14-day pension period in which a person dies. This has resulted in some horrible situations where grieving families are asked to pay back a debt. This schedule will change the cessation of disability compensation payment to the date of the person's death, harmonising the position in the Veterans' Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, as well as income support payments.

                  Schedule 7will deal with application and transitional provisions.

                  The transitional provisions in the bill will:

                              Schedule 8 contains amendments to legislation in other portfolios such as social services, Treasury and health to reflect the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004as the primary statute for veteran matters and the merging of the commissions.


                              This legislation will reform a highly complex, overlapping veterans' compensation framework, one that operates under three separate pieces of legislation and that causes a great deal of anxiety to the veteran community.

                              This bill has been developed as a result of and shaped by feedback provided by the veteran community over the last 20 months.

                              This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the system right for veterans and families. A system that for too long has caused much unnecessary anxiety for the veteran community.

                              The book Shining a Light recently produced by the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that covers the lived experience of veterans and families makes this all too clear.

                              I want to thank all the veterans, defence personnel, families, advocates and experts who have been involved in this process to date.

                              Your frank and fearless feedback has genuinely been vital in developing the pathway to and the nuance of this legislation.

                              This legislation is a significant step in ensuring a better future for defence personnel, veterans and families.

                              I look forward to continuing to work with you here in this place, on all sides, to make this once-in-a-generation positive change for all Australian veterans.

                              Further details are included in the explanatory memorandum, and I commend the bill to the House.

                              Debate adjourned.