Keogh did not give a formal response to the report’s 13 recommendations, but said it was his view the government should get on with implementing them as quickly as possible.
The commissioners said there was “a compelling case” for a permanent body to be established by the time the commission ends in mid-2024 to keep track of implementation progress. They will make a special report next year on what this should look like.
Research has found there are much higher rates of suicide among ex-service personnel than in the general population. But the commission’s report says existing data does not give the full picture and there are gaps.
Census data revealed for the first time there are more than 581,000 Australians who are either veterans or currently serving in the ADF. Approximately 6,000 people leave the ADF each year.
In June, the Department of Veterans Affairs had almost 62,400 claims on hand but was yet to assign 41,800 of them to be examined. The wait time on claims has also grown significantly over the past five years, with the median processing time more than 300 days in some cases.
Keogh said the government had already lifted a staffing cap, meaning the department could transfer temporary contractors to permanent positions, and begun work to recruit the 500 more staff promised during the election.
Commission chair Nick Kaldas said the backlog was unacceptable.
The 13 recommendations include several about sufficiently resourcing DVA to clear the backlog of claims. It also says the laws around veteran compensation and rehabilitation should be simplified by mid-2024.
The report says while change would not be easy, “the difficulties of reform provide no justification to delay any further”.
RSL Australia ambassador Pete Rudland said it was vital for government and ex-service organizations to work together on the “mammoth task” of simplifying the system.
Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, who gave evidence to the commission last week, warned the government had to be flexible if the department needed more than 500 people.
“When it takes two to four years to get a delegate, that’s before the claim is looked at, we have got massive problems,” she said.
She also urged veterans to speak to the royal commission, which runs for another two years.
“This is our one shot. If you don’t want to come forward for yourself, do it for your mates,” she said.
The commissioners also flagged further work will examine whether the support available to families is sufficient.
Rudland said this was vital to getting better at helping veterans.
“Anything that happens to the soldier happens to the family… we should never separate one from the other,” he said.
Department head Liz Cosson told the commission the department had sought extra funding over the years but the money given to it in the budget hadn’t kept up with the volume of work.
Former veterans minister Andrew Gee, a National MP, also told the commission that despite the limited staffing for claims processing, he was made to cut $430 million from the department’s budget.
If you are a current or former ADF member, or a relative, and need counseling or support, contact the Defense All-Hours Support Line on 1800 628 036 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.
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