Paper pushing at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is slowing the claims process, with more than two-thirds of records still to be digitised.
The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Monday was told of the DVA’s antiquated systems that cause delays and frustrations which have been linked to higher suicide rates among injured veterans awaiting claims, sometimes for years.
A move away from an entirely paper-driven claims system had dramatically reduced waiting times, representatives from the DVA and Department of Defence said.
In the past year 75 per cent of claims were processed within 35 business days.
Department of Defence first assistant secretary Monique Hamilton told the inquiry 27 per cent of files had been digitised to date, with the aim to have all files electronically recorded within five years.
“These files date back some time, the paper … has faded over time, the state of the files is varied,” she said.
“So it takes on average seven hours to digitise a member’s file; where they’ve served 30 to 40 years it can take upwards of 20 hours to digitise a single file.”
As recently as 2017, health and personnel files for each information request also had to be recorded on a DVD by Defence and couriered to the DVA, the inquiry was told.
It meant only 35 per cent of requests for files from Defence were being provided on time.
“Since then, a significant amount of effort has been put in on both departments to improve the process of information sharing,” Australian Defence Force Air Commodore Steve Martin said.
“But there will always be requests that take time and sometimes considerable time … because the record may not exist any more or may never have existed.”
Comcare boss Susan Weston also gave evidence on Monday, talking about how the ADF interacts with her statutory authority charged with monitoring work, health and safety issues.
She flagged problems with the Work Health and Safety Act which meant the ADF was not legally obliged to report incidents like psychological illness, bullying, and physical and sexual assaults unless it resulted in death or hospitalisation.
The “very prescriptive” legislation meant there was “definitely a gap”, Ms Weston said.
“To see a serious sexual assault or physical assault … the injury needs to be sufficient to be considered for an in-patient at a hospital and that doesn’t always happen with these type of injuries, she said.
“If it doesn’t pass the notifiable request, that is the problem, we don’t get the visibility of it in that way.”
Ms Weston said the act also specifically excluded psychological injuries, though this was currently under review.
She said the ADF still had an obligation to report incidents of workplace “psychosocial hazards” like bullying, sexual harassment and work performance management issues to Comcare, but that could mean critical time delays.
Comcare had also started gathering its own intelligence to help identify if the ADF was meeting its obligations to keep its workplace “psychologically or physically safe”.
Ms Weston said “prevention and early intervention is critical” in these areas.
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