Australia’s veterans’ compensation scheme contributes to suicide rate, study finds

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Australia’s veterans compensation scheme is “so complicated” it could be contributing to the suicide rate of former members of the Australian Defense Force, the Royal Commission on Defense and Veteran Suicide has found.

The commission’s preliminary report, tabled Thursday, calls on the Department of Veterans Affairs to process a backlog of nearly 42,000 veterans’ claims within two years, and also raises concerns about “cultural issues” within the defense force that could lead to an increased risk of suicide.

Matt Keogh, the veterans’ affairs minister, apologized to veterans for the failings of the department outlined in the report, saying “significant work” remained to be done to improve the beleaguered system.

Of the 13 recommendations made by board chairman Nick Kaldas and commissioners James Douglas and Peggy Brown, most relate to the long-standing issue of case processing times that had been linked to the incidence of suicide among veterans.

The report said it was clear that Australia’s veterans’ compensation and rehabilitation legislation system “is so complex that it affects the mental health of some veterans – both serving and former ADF members – and may be a contributing factor to suicidality.”

Related: Horny attitudes to sex and ‘violence is manly’ belief leading to bad behavior in ADF, royal commission hears

More than 1,200 ADF veterans and service personnel died by suicide between 2001 and 2019, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The report said the department should be given the resources it needs to deal with the current backlog of claims, saying this should be eliminated by March 31, 2024.

To help achieve this, the department must advise the government on resource requirements, and a staff cap must be abolished.

There is also a recommendation to simplify and harmonize veterans’ compensation and rehabilitation legislation, with the government urged to draft legislation for a new framework by the end of next year.

Ahead of the commission’s final report in mid-2024, the report also called for increased protections for people engaging with the commission, saying changes needed to be made to the Royal Commission Act to ensure serving ADF members could disclose sensitive personal information, and amendments to the Criminal Code so that information can be disclosed to the royal commission without being in breach of confidentiality.

Other recommendations address administrative issues within the department, including improving access to information for veterans and their families, changes in trauma practices for those seeking DVA information, and educational programs for families of veterans seeking information.

The interim report also said it had been “constrained – unreasonably” by claims of parliamentary privilege and public interest immunity in its investigations, and said it had been unable to review previous investigations by the Australian National Audit Office and parliamentary committees.

Speaking on ABC radio on Thursday, Kaldas was also critical of the department for not providing requested information, having previously expressed concern that it had been “difficult to obtain”.

When asked if that information had been more available in recent months, Kaldas replied: “Not yet.

“There are a number of problem areas we’re trying to navigate … privacy, national security issues and so on.”

Keogh acknowledged that concerns had been raised about access to information, but stopped short of supporting the recommendations in the interim report. He said he had “not formed a view” on those talks.

He said that if there had been a failure in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs and Defense had operated, he was “deeply sorry”.

“To people who have felt that they didn’t get the treatment they deserve … I’m sorry. It wasn’t on our watch, but as a government in this country, veterans always deserve the best and we should deliver that.”

The report notes that there have been more than 50 previous reports, and more than 750 recommendations made, regarding the topic of suicide among serving and ex-serving members of the ADF that have not been acted upon.

It also raised concerns about “a number of cultural issues within the ADF” and the negative impacts they had and continue to have.

The commissioners flagged that they would “have more to say about culture” in the final report.

Mr Keogh said on Thursday the government was trying to get on top of the backlog and had committed an additional 500 staff to processing claims “as soon as possible”.

“I don’t have a time frame for when we’ll be able to get through that backlog yet, but getting greater clarity on that is something I’m really committed to getting at the moment,” he said.

He also said the government will not need to wait for the final report due in June 2024 to follow the interim report’s recommendations as a “priority”.

The Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, said the report highlighted the need to return the Veterans Affairs portfolio to Cabinet, saying the cases raised had “been going on for decades”.

“The way our country supports our veterans should be a source of national pride, not shame. I want to make sure we can support the government in every reasonable step they take,” he said.

• In Australia, the crisis support service is Lifeline 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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