Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Deputy Leader of the House) (18:11): In summing up I would like to thank all members who contributed to the debate on this bill, the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment Bill 2018. I would like to acknowledge the continued tradition of bipartisan support for the veteran community demonstrated by the opposition. The importance of family and the support they provide to both our serving personnel and veterans cannot be overestimated. Just moments ago the shadow minister and myself were joined by the opposition leader, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the shadow minister for foreign affairs at the Australian War Memorial, where we paid our respects to women who have served and women who have supported their loved ones who served at a very moving Last Post service conducted by Dr Brendan Nelson. It was a very fitting tribute, and it was good to see such a large crowd gathered for that event.
The bill before the House relates to how the Department of Veterans’ Affairs administers bereavement payments. The government is committed to supporting veterans and their families. This bill will maintain the current practice for families when a beloved member dies. There are no changes to current entitlements for bereavement payment—they will remain exactly the same. This is a compassionate, sympathetic and unobtrusive response which avoids disturbing the family with additional interactions with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs while they are grieving. When a veteran receiving a DVA income support payment dies, the surviving partner is entitled to a bereavement payment equivalent to 14 weeks of the veteran’s income support payment. The bereavement payment is designed to assist the surviving partner with costs following the death of the partner and to provide a period to adjust their finances following the end of the deceased partner’s payments. It is paid automatically once the family notifies DVA. Often the veteran will continue to receive payments after their death, as these payments continue until DVA has been notified. This results in an overpayment. This bill ensures the adjustment is made in a single administrative process, rather than through a number of formal debt recoveries. It avoids the need to recover debts from the deceased estate and it avoids disturbing the family during the grieving period. The bill will provide legislative certainty for past and future recoveries of pension overpayments from bereavement payment and will maintain the current discreet practice to respect the veterans’ families mourning their loss.
I note the opposition’s comments regarding veterans’ access to health services more broadly across the nation. While I appreciate that there’s been occasional commentary regarding health providers who don’t accept DVA fees, I assure the House that this is not a systemwide problem. In Australia healthcare providers in private practice are free to choose how to run their business, including their opening hours, how much they’ll charge and who they’ll see. This of course includes whether or not to provide treatment under DVA’s arrangements. As I told the House today, every year health providers across this country provide over 9.5 million medical and dental services to veterans and families. As a nation we can be rightly proud of the more than $11 billion provided by Australian taxpayers to support in the order of 290,000 veterans and their families.
While we occasionally hear anecdotal reports of issues with access or fees, the proportion of clients accessing health services who complained about these issues is very low—only 0.1 per cent in the last DVA annual report. Of course if a veteran does experience difficulties accessing services, DVA will identify alternative arrangements to ensure a veteran’s care is maintained. This could include providing transport to alternative health providers or, where there is a specific clinical need, funding services above the DVA rate. DVA medical and allied health fees continue to represent the full payment to healthcare providers and are significantly higher than the fees payable under the Medicare scheme. The government is progressively reintroducing fee indexation for DVA medical and allied health services from 2017-18 and, as of 1 July this year, indexation has been reintroduced for GP attendances, bulk-billing incentives, specialist attendances and DVA’s dental and allied health services. This has only been possible due to the strong economic management of the coalition government.
In conclusion, I again thank members opposite and those on this side of the chamber for their support for the Veterans’ Entitlement Amendment Bill 2018. As a nation, we are rightly proud of the service provided by our men and women in uniform. It is a matter of fact, Mr Deputy Speaker Hastie—and you, as someone who has served, would know this more than others—that in the order of 80,000 to 85,000 Australians put on the uniform and serve in the permanent or reserve ADF. For those of us who haven’t put on the uniform and don’t serve in that capacity, as a grateful nation we are indebted to those who serve. Our task is to make sure they are supported while they are serving but also once their service ends. The transition from the Australian Defence Force to civilian life is not always easy. In your case, Deputy Speaker Hastie, it’s a quite unusual path that you’ve chosen to take in joining us here in the House of Representatives. But I congratulate you on your own service but also for the path you’ve taken in transition.
As a government, we are keen to work across party political lines to ensure that the veterans and their families are well supported both now and into the future. I’ve had many briefings with the shadow minister and appreciated her forthright input into policy development, and I’m sure I’ll get more of that forthright input in the weeks and months ahead. In that spirit of bipartisanship, I must stress that many members, from both sides of the House, come to me raising issues on specific areas of concern for veterans and, wherever possible, I will work constructively to make sure we get an outcome which is in the interests of the veterans and their families. I commend this bill.