The head of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has vowed to walk away from the job if she can’t improve ex-defence personnel’s experiences with the beleaguered agency within the next year.
Liz Cosson has also promised to change the adversarial culture of the agency, which has been under fire for the bureaucratic and ruthless way it has dealt with veterans for many years.
In the wake of a damning Productivity Commission report, which recommended the department undergo “fundamental reform”, Ms Cosson has asked veterans fed up with the system to give the agency another go.
It comes amidst calls for a royal commission into the rate of suicides among former defence personnel, including Afghanistan veteran Jesse Bird who took his own life after his claim for permanent impairment was rejected.
It also comes after the Commonwealth Ombudsman gave the agency a panning, after it both underpaid a Navy veteran known as “Mr A” more than $500,000 and chased him for $100,000 in debts.
Ms Cosson – who served in the defence force for 30 years – said the agency had made huge changes since both cases, but the Productivity Commission report was a chance to “ramp it up [and] put it on steroids”.
“I acknowledge and I’ve owned up to this, we haven’t made quick decisions. We have not been the best we can be. We have been adversarial. But we are changing. And that’s what I want to send as a message. We are changing and we are listening to the veterans,” Ms Cosson said.
“We want to recreate that trust and reestablish some hope for our veteran community.”
She hit out at negative media coverage, which she believed was “actually hurting our veterans” and making them afraid to turn to the agency for help, and asked people to raise roadblocks with her directly.
“Tell me if we’re still getting it wrong and I will work with you to get it right because I’m in this job for four more years and if I’m still part of the problem in 12 months I will hand over. But I want to get this right,” Ms Cosson said.
She also urged people to get in touch with her if they’d had a bad experience with a particular delegate.
“It’s not about blame, it’s not about sacking, it’s about helping that frontline person get reskilled,” she said.
“I just want them to tell me if they’re having a bad experience because there’s so many good staff out there who are being dragged into [the claim] ‘no one cares in DVA’.”
We have not been the best we can be. We have been adversarial.
The retired major-general, who was promoted to the department’s top job last April.
While the Productivity Commission retreated from its earlier recommendation for the department to be abolished entirely, it wants two of the three military compensation acts – the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (MRCA) and Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation [Defence-related Claims] Act (DRCA) – to be harmonised, with the oldest scheme – the Veterans’ Entitlements Act – to be phased down.
Ms Cosson said it would likely take years – and a fair bit of courage – to reform the complex and distinct schemes.
“There are going to have to be trade-offs and what’s happened over time is that we haven’t wanted to trade off anything and I think it’s time now to build a new piece of legislation that’s fit for today but fit for the next 100 years,” she said.
“We can either just keep Band-Aiding little bits or we all have the courage to say we need to take this forward, not only the courage of government but the courage of our veterans’ community to all come together now.
“The more we divide ourselves and just cherrypick things, we’re not going to deliver the real reform we’re crying out for.”
The commission also recommended there be a single pathway for all reviews, regardless of which scheme the veteran is claiming under.
As it stands, if an internal review of the decision is unsuccessful, claims made under MRCA and VEA go to the Veterans’ Review Board, while some VEA decisions and most DRCA claims go before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
The department has spent more than $14 million in the last two financial years on external law firms related to appeals through the AAT, but Ms Cosson said some of the money spent on external law firms was on advice unrelated to appeals.
“For example, we wanted to be able to provide assistance dogs for our veterans who have mental health conditions and a diagnosis of PTSD. I needed to make sure I could do that so I needed to get legal advice,” she said.
She also said only a fraction of cases went to the administrative appeals tribunal – 1.5 percent last financial year.
But she acknowledged the toll the appeals process took.
“Yes there are examples where we have not been good in dealing with our veterans and families,” Ms Cosson said.
“We haven’t shown empathy, we have been adversarial. That was part of our culture but in the last three years, things have changed.”
Veterans can email Department of Veterans’ Affairs Liz Cosson at firstname.lastname@example.org