Veterans unite to call for improved access to mental health support.
By Lexie Jenuniewic
Three ex-service organisations from regional Victoria have united in a push to bring mental health support for veterans in line with other support services.
Australian Defence Force veterans Andrew Hamilton, Frank Nuccio, and Kevin Scott have committed to assisting other veterans and families through organisations in the Ballarat region.
Mr Hamilton is the secretary of Ballarat Veterans Assistance Centre, Mr Nuccio is the senior vice president of Ballarat RSL, and Mr Scott is the secretary of Sebastopol RSL.
All three men have expressed concern over the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ Non-Liability Health Care provision for veterans.
The scheme is open to current and former defence force members to provide fully-funded treatment of all mental health conditions.
If a veteran’s application is approved, eligible treatment can begin.
Mr Nuccio said “on the surface” the scheme seemed “really great”, but a key shortfall was impacting veterans accessing the service.
He said psychiatrists could not charge a gap for veterans’ affairs patients, leaving them out of pocket.
“The fee that they’ll get from that visit is substantially less than if they saw a private patient … it makes it even harder for the veteran to get mental health help,” Mr Nuccio said.
“The general consensus is that you’re less likely to get in [to see a psychiatrist] if you’re a DVA patient.”
In a statement, a Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesperson said the department paid a rate higher than the equivalent Medicare Benefits Schedule fee.
“In return for this higher rate, providers are not permitted to charge DVA cardholders a gap fee,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Nuccio said the department could lift its rebate to the same level as the Transport Accident Commission and WorkCover.
Mr Hamilton said a report from a psychiatrist was needed to claim the cost from the department.
He said that would require several sessions.
“The administration burden on psychiatrists to provide the paperwork for someone to be recognised for their mental health, is huge,” he said.
The department spokesperson said there were 1,470 psychiatrists who provided about 110,000 services to more than 20,000 Veteran Card holders last financial year.
“However, DVA acknowledges there are broader workforce shortages across the mental health sector and that this can present particular challenges for veterans living in rural and remote areas,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Hamilton said the challenge of accessing already-strained psychiatrists was leading to veterans “putting aside” mental health issues that needed to be addressed.
“Trying to get a veteran in the door first place is hard,” he said.
“Then when you start closing those doors … financial cost, administrative wait by DVA … it starts to mean they’ll close the door.”
He said the wait to receive treatment, in some cases, could be deadly.
“I know a recent case of a veteran who died by suicide trying to get his mental health recognised,” he said.
Mr Scott, who was a cadet officer for 14 years, said many Australia Defence Force cadets weren’t aware they could access help through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“One of my major concerns is the rate of cadets, or ex-cadets, suiciding,” Mr Scott said.
According to the latest Defence and veteran suicide monitoring report, 1,600 ADF members and veterans with service after 1985 died by suicide between 1997 and 2020.
All three organisations have called for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to hold a “think-tank” with mental health experts who could provide direction and help simplify what they described as a “very complicated” system.
“There’s been a verbal ‘we’re trying’ [from the government], but the reality isn’t necessarily there,” Mr Hamilton said.
“From Vietnam times to today, we’ve gone a long way.
“But there’s still a long way to go.”
The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide released its interim report in August last year.
Eliminating a backlog of 41,799 claims to the department by March 2024 was among the 13 recommendations made.