Veteran compo clash

GARRY Ridge wears the trauma he experienced in Vietnam on his body. 

The veteran from the Tamar Valley has damaged hearing and injuries to his knee and finger, suffered while on patrol as a military policeman in 1971.

DETERMINED: Garry Ridge is seeking assistance from the Department of Veterans' Affairs for injuries sustained in Vietnam. Picture: Phillip Biggs.

DETERMINED: Garry Ridge is seeking assistance from the Department of Veterans' Affairs for injuries sustained in Vietnam. Picture: Phillip Biggs.

ADVOCATE: Garry Beven has seen an increase in veterans' medical compensation claims going to review. Picture: Doug Dingwall.

ADVOCATE: Garry Beven has seen an increase in veterans' medical compensation claims going to review. Picture: Doug Dingwall.

Viet Cong threw a satchel charge at his vehicle in Vung Tau.It landed nearby and the force of the explosion injured him. 

Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan, who visited Launceston on Saturday.

Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan, who visited Launceston on Saturday.

His eyes are sensitive to daylight and tear ducts damaged, reminding him of a tear gas attack which left him without sight for three days. 

The fighting in Vietnam has long stopped. But Mr Ridge is struggling with his own government over the war’s impact on his body.

His attempts to be compensated for his injuries through his veteran disability pension have met a wall at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

After referring him to its selected medical specialists, the department denied his claim. 

His case will go to the Veteran Review Board, a process which could leave Mr Ridge waiting up to nine months. Some claims take longer to determine once they reach this stage. A DVA review officer did not ask a question or contact him when Mr Ridge appealed the rejection.

Across two claims one DVA representative has contacted him on one occasion, while fact sheets available to veterans were unclear, he said.

Client assistance from the department was poor and direct contact lacking.

“This is what people face all the time, the exact same scenario.”

The requirement for reviews of veterans’ compensation claims for medical conditions has increased for veterans seeking help from Launceston welfare compensation advocates in the last year.

Four claims went to the Veterans’ Review Board and one to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on average in the years up to 2015, according to Launceston compensation welfare advocate Garry Beven. 

Last year 15 cases were required to go to the VRB and four to the tribunal between January and October.

A leading cause of the increase was the DVA’s use of its selected medical specialists, who refuted the reports of local specialists used by veterans in making their claims, Mr Beven said.

The problem was encountered nationwide, he said.

The claims process had grown adversarial as a result. 

It has created anxiety for veterans and damaged their trust in the DVA.

The proportion of compensation claims rejected nationally remained steady between 2012-2015, at about 35 per cent, according to the DVA. 

The delay created by claim rejections denies financial assistance to veterans who cannot work due to injury.

“It can cause family hardships by financial means,” Mr Beven said.

The stress caused was exacerbating veterans’ mental health issues, he said.

“You’re living in a world where you have no control over the outcome.”

Veterans were not receiving the respect and treatment they deserved in the process, Mr Beven said.

“The whole of the legislation should be beneficial to the veteran. It is not at all.”

Compensation is needed to assist rehabilitation and retraining helping injured veterans transition back into civilian society.

Common conditions included in claims are post traumatic stress disorder and hearing loss.

Mr Ridge also describes veterans’ relationship with the DVA as adversarial.

“It becomes them against us.

“They treat veterans as combatants, as the enemy. They don’t want to know you.”

Mr Ridge, who worked as a public servant, said he was unfazed by his encounters with the DVA. 

His experiences only made him more determined.

However he sees other veterans grow frustrated and give up. 

“The DVA rely on that – that you’ll give up or not try.”

While 35.4 per cent of claims were not accepted last year, only 6.2 per cent went to the Veteran Review Board and/or Administrative Appeal Tribunal.

Mr Beven and his colleague Adrian Radford often have to calm veterans struggling with the system. 

Mr Ridge has written to Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan, Defence Minister Marise Payne and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about his experiences. 

The claims process was confusing for veterans, he wrote in a letter to Mr Turnbull. 

“The only point which is made emphatically clear is that the veteran can withdraw at any time,” the letter said. 

“Obviously many do, thereby saving the department any further waste of resource – no thought or process in place whatsoever to personally assist, thereby encouraging continuation of the claim.”

Mr Tehan said the government had responded to the concerns about delays in processing veterans’ claims.

The federal budget allocated $48.7 million to maintain the DVA’s existing IT system and design a ‘transformation program’ to reduce processing times for claims and make it easier for veterans to submit, track and process claims online.

Mr Tehan said claim processing wait times weren’t increasing, but needed to be reduced.

“DVA wants to make sure claims are processed as quickly as possible,” he said.

The department used selected treating medical specialists when necessary information could not be gained from veterans’ specialists, or when a veteran did not have a specialist, Mr Tehan said. 

This was a necessary part of the system, which led to delays, he said.

The federal government is rolling out an alternative dispute resolution model, after a successful trial in NSW and the ACT, to reduce adversarial elements of veterans’ experiences of the claims system. 

Current and former Australian Defence Force members will be able to access mental health treatment through a $37.9 million federal government extension to a non-liability health care initiative.

doug.dingwall@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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