Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015

 

An unprecedented veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis grips Australia today.

This crisis was created because of poor management of Australia's military resources and defence personnel - by successive governments.

These governments compounded their error by attempting to cover up the true nature and scale of our veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis.

The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 I present to the Senate today will properly address our nation's shameful veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis.

By guaranteeing with this legislation, automatic free access to the best possible medical treatment in Australia, for the men and women of our ADF and Federal Police, who have served their country in war or war-like operations this Parliament will stop the harmful and all too often - deadly, bureaucratic fight our veterans are forced to undertake so they can obtain a health Gold Card.

General Outline

As described in this Legislation's Explanatory Memorandum:

1. The purpose of the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 is to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 (Cth) so that all veterans, including peacekeepers and peacemakers or former members of Australia's Defence Force, who have served in war or war-like operations, (and for related purposes) are provided medical and psychological treatment free-of-charge - as a right of service - the best medical treatment Australia has to offer i.e. Health Gold Card benefits.

2. At present, there are three categories of repatriation, depending on service and medical needs:

1. Orange Card (pharmaceutical only);

2. White Card (specific conditions); and a

3. Gold Card (all clinical health needs).

3. While repatriation efforts have improved in recent decades, as witnessed by high rates of self-harm and homelessness - there are still many people who have served Australia whose medical and psychological needs are not addressed.

4. The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 is an important first step in ensuring a more effective transition between national service and civilian life.

5. The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 broadens the terms of reference of the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to ensure everyone who served in war or war-like operations receive vital, necessary and timely medical and psychological treatment - whether or not the condition or injury was caused by war or contracted during war or war-like operations.

History

This legislation is a direct result of events that transpired at a meeting of veterans that was organised Dr Raymond Huntley at Burpengary, Queensland on Wednesday the 21st of May 2014.

At the gathering of veterans - consisting of former ADF members mainly from the Army, who had served in Vietnam and younger veterans who had recently served in Middle East conflicts - Dr Huntley asked all the Health Gold Card holders to stand.

About a dozen people stood. Dr Huntley then asked those who had obtained their gold cards in two years or less to sit. Two veterans sat.

Through this process of gradually increasing the number of years it takes to obtain Gold Cards, questioning, and then asking veterans to sit - it became clear very quickly, that most veterans had to wait about five years before they received a health gold card.

Two veterans had to wait over ten years to access the medical benefits that the coverage of a Health Gold card gives. After Dr Huntley had finished that exercise - which in reality was for the benefit of myself and two other Liberal politicians, a former digger who had served in the Middle East spoke to the group.

He had a tragic story. He said a number of his comrades that he'd served with in war in the Middle East had taken their own lives. And one of the main reasons, he said - which had pushed his  veteran friends to take that terrible decision to kill themselves - was the psychological harm that occurred to his mates while they fought the Government to obtain a Gold Card.

He said words that must hurt some public servants who are very dedicated to their jobs and take pride in their work - but nonetheless must be spoken in the debate.

The Middle East veteran said that many of his friends would have preferred to fight the Taliban, rather than fight the bureaucrats who decided whether our Diggers received the best possible medical care that Australia can provide to her wounded warriors.

Then from the floor of the meeting this younger veteran suggested that many lives could be saved - if the Australian government automatically gave a Health Gold Card to all veterans who have served in war or war-like conditions.

By making access to a Gold Card a tick and flick exercise - or a simple bureaucratic process, for those members of the ADF who had served in a war or war-like conditions - it will allow vulnerable and often damaged people to bypass a traumatic and further damaging administrative process and immediately receive the medical care they need to get well.

This was the light bulb moment for my team and I. And from that moment my office has worked hard to present this legislation to the parliament, in the unshakable belief that it will lessen the risk of further harm and help stop our veterans from taking their own lives.

From that day, Wednesday of May 2014 - my team and I have had thousands of conversations with veterans of all conflicts, which confirm the observations of that young veteran who had served in the Middle East.

Some veterans reacted in a hostile manner when I said that we should make it much easier for all veterans who have served in war or war-like conditions to access the speedy and quality medical treatment guaranteed by a Gold Card.

They had a mindset which strangely supported the hard and convoluted bureaucratic process in place though the Department of Veterans' Affairs for their clients to access the benefits of a Gold Card.

To those few individuals, a Gold Card became a status symbol, which gave holders, a greater sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

When it was pointed out to these rare individuals that it was the bureaucratic fight for a Health Gold Card that was significantly contributing to the suicides of our veterans - then most doubters of this new policy accepted the obvious truth of the matter - and became supporters.

The passage of this legislation, which enables the automatic issuing of a health Gold Card entitling free treatment, is an effective early intervention action, which will save hundreds of Australian lives, billions of dollars and a million heartaches.

It will take steps to repair the wound that Australia inflicts on the hearts and minds of those who are prepared to take great risks and sacrifice all.

When our warriors come home hurt under the current system - their country, instead of welcoming them with warm handshakes, hugs, kisses and the recognition of being special citizens - turns its back on our wounded heroes and makes them fight to access proper medical care.

A major cause of Australia's obscene veterans' suicide rate (apart from systemic under-resourcing and over-commitment to international operations) is the unnecessary psychological damage caused during our veterans' bureaucratic fight for Gold Card guaranteed medical treatment.

Gold Card Cost

When the issue of cost is raised - the saying that comes immediately to mind is: if we can't afford to properly care for our wounded veterans when they come back from war-like and war service - then we shouldn't send them in the first place.

Australia has a moral as well as a legal duty to give our veterans access to the best medical care our country can offer.

And under the current broken DVA system we - the politicians who make the decision to send our sons and daughters into harm's way, have failed to live up to the example those young people have set.

Veterans' Suicide Rate

Today we have a Prime Minister, Minister for Defence and Minister for Veterans' Affairs who cannot tell the people of Australia how many of the 70,000 contemporary cohort of veterans, have taken their own lives - or are forced to live rough among our homeless.

Our veterans' suicide rate - intentionally kept secret by all major political parties and senior military commanders to protect their reputations, is a national disgrace and shame.

A major cause of Australia's obscene veterans' suicide rate (apart from systemic under-resourcing and over-commitment to international operations) is the unnecessary psychological damage caused during our veterans' bureaucratic fight for Gold Card guaranteed medical treatment.

JLN believes that when properly considered, the automatic grant of Health Gold Cards to Australia's veterans will be cost neutral after the extremely high expense of doctors, lawyers and suicides are removed from the assessment process - and taken into account.

Closing

I close my speech as I opened. An unprecedented veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis grips Australia today.

This crisis was created because of poor management of Australia's military resources and defence personnel - by successive governments.

These governments compounded their error by attempting to cover up the true nature and scale of our veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis.

The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 I present to the Senate today will properly address our nation's shameful veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis.

Indeed Mr President - this Bill is the first legislative step to solving these terrible problems and I urge all Senators to support this Bill.