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Hawkins Speech To RSA National Conference, 2005

Hon. George Hawkins

Speech to the RSA National Conference, 2005
- The Veterans' Affairs Minister addresses RSA's 10-point welfare manifesto.

Thank you for the opportunity to come and talk to you, in my capacity as Minister of Veterans' Affairs.

I would like to start by acknowledging the service to the veterans' community provided by the National Council and in particular the role of the president, John Campbell, and Pat Herbert as the chief executive, and the National Executive itself.

Year of the Veteran

Yesterday your president asked that we as a country hold a Year of the Veteran. Today I can tell you that the Government has decided to make 2006 the Year of the Veteran.

It will be a time to look back, and also a time to look forward. It will be an opportunity to remember and honour the sacrifices that have been made by New Zealand veterans. It will be chance to treasure the memory of those who died for this country in war and conflict, and a chance to talk to our young people about their sacrifice.

It is very timely. Our young people are becoming increasingly interested in those veterans who have gone before. This interest has been demonstrated by the large numbers of young people that have been attending commemorations in recent years.

I look forward to an early meeting with John Campbell to hear the ideas and events that you are proposing. We will need to talk about the details soon. It will be a year-long opportunity to focus on veterans. Along with other events, it will be a chance to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The commemorations would include the RSA. The Year of the Veteran will coincide with the 90th anniversary of the RSA.

I look forward to entering into dialogue with you about the best ways to honour our veterans in 2006.

Museum

Your President has also raised concerns about the need to support the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum at Waiouru. I have visited the Museum myself, a number of times over the past few years and I share your concerns. I look forward to sitting down with interested parties and looking at ways to adequately support such an important part of our national heritage.

Commemorations

This year we commemorate two significant dates.

2005 marked the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. In April 2005, an official New Zealand delegation travelled to Turkey to take part in the commemorations.

Next month an official delegation which will include about 80 veterans of the Pacific Campaign will travel by RNZAF aircraft to Noumea and the Solomon Islands to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific. The delegation will arrive back in Wellington in time to attend the official commemorations for VJ Day on 15th August.

In addition to the veterans who have attended commemorations as part of official groups, the Government has been able to provide funding to well over 200 other veterans. This has assisted them to travel overseas to attend commemorations.

Closer to home, I am also pleased to note that funding assistance has also been provided to organise New Zealand-based events and national reunions.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

The establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is something quite profound. It will mean a great deal to many New Zealanders as a place where people can come and focus their sadness, loss, love and respect.

I want to acknowledge the key leadership role that the Prime Minister had in establishing the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

RSA "10 Point Veterans' Welfare Manifesto"

I have been glad to receive a copy of your "10 point Veterans Welfare Manifesto". The Government is very grateful to receive input from the RSA and other veterans groups on public policy about the wider veterans community. This provides a very welcome opportunity for the Government to looks at a number of matters, and I would particularly like to thank you for taking this initiative.

Because you have raised these issues we will talk with you about them. I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the issues you have raised.

The manifesto raises issues mainly about the health and welfare of veterans.

The focus of this government's health policy is to provide a fair, affordable and accessible public health system. In addition to funding care through the public health system, the government spends an additional $13 million to meet the health care costs for veterans in receipt of a War Disablement Pension.

One of the strengths of the current War Disablement Pension system is that it allows for veterans to apply for any disability that they believe is attributable to or aggravated by their service. That said, it is important to insure that this approach makes a meaningful difference in the lives of veterans.

I would like to hear from you about how your suggestions will fit in with the existing social services.

The manifesto makes some quite specific proposals that I look forward to considering, and talking with you about it.

Point One - Section 23 of the War Pensions Act 1954

The Manifesto seeks to amend section 23 of the War Pensions Act so that it recognises the health and welfare impacts arising from more recent operational activities.

The purpose of Section 23 of the War Pensions Act 1954 is to provide additional pension payments and support for veterans whose quality of life has significantly deteriorated.

I am advised that on the face of it the current wording of the War Pensions Act 1954 should cover the disabilities that you identify. This means that a veteran who is severely debilitated, by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, by terminal cancer or other severe disability, to the point that the veteran is no longer able to function normally, is able to make application for additional support under this section of the War Pensions Act 1954.

That said, we are happy to work with the RSA and the wider veterans' community in reviewing the Act to ensure it fully meets veterans' needs.

Point Two - The Introduction of a Veterans Card

The Manifesto proposes a card for veterans. I note that currently all veterans in receipt of a War Disablement Pension receive a treatment card, similar to the Australian White Card, that gives them access to fully funded treatment and full payment of pharmaceuticals for all disabilities, physical and psychological, that they receive a War Disablement Pension for.

Your proposal seeks an extension to these services so as to provide additional health benefits from within the publicly funded health system. However, this is different to the Government's approach, which seeks to ensure that all New Zealanders, including veterans and their families, have access to affordable primary health care.

If veterans require surgery for a condition that they receive a War Disablement Pension for, they can be considered for surgery in a private hospital if the procedure can not be carried out within the public system within six months. This approach will continue to be monitored so as to insure that the health of veterans is addressed.

That said the Government will look closely at this latest proposal for a Veterans' Card and see whether it is viable to be implemented given the existing approach used in the public health service. Your input into these considerations will be welcome.

Point Three - The Surviving Spouse/Partner Pension

The Manifesto seeks changes to the Surviving Spouse Pension. This Pension is based on a War Widows Pension

As you are aware, eligibility for a Surviving Spouse/Partner Pension is legislatively set and can be granted under various circumstances.

The criteria provide a number of pathways for eligibility for a Surviving Spouse/Partner Pension. In addition, the ability of the War Pensions Claims Panel to undertake a posthumous review of the veteran's disabilities, including the disabilities of a veteran who has never made application for a War Disablement Pension, provides the opportunity to address the situation you have outlined.

Now that John Campbell is back from overseas I look forward to sitting down with him and hearing more from him about this proposal.

Point four - Veterans' Homes

The government is currently looking into ways that the assistance can be provided to veterans' homes. The homes will benefit from the initiative in this year's budget where the government has increased funding to District Health Boards to help them set more sustainable contract rates with residential care providers.

However, in considering this issue, government needs to ensure that other veterans are not disadvantaged and that all veterans are able to access quality long term care.

To that end, government must take into account the fact that the three veterans' homes cater for a relatively small number of veterans, while other providers meet the residential care needs of the majority of veterans in the population.

Point Five - Access to Veterans Pension

Eligibility for Veterans Pension is currently under consideration. This is to insure that all the relevant facts are taken into account when considering who is eligible for the Veterans' Pension. This Government is committed to honouring and supporting veterans, and we are treating this matter with the seriousness it deserves.

Point Six - Support to the RNZRSA Welfare Structure

The Manifesto raises the need to support the RSA Welfare infrastructure. One of the initiatives currently being developed is a training programme for veterans' advocates and community groups who are involved in working with veterans to ensure that they are fully aware of the services that are available and that they are able to assist veterans with accessing those services.

Once this programme is rolled out, Veterans' Affairs New Zealand will be looking at other ways in which assistance can be provided to the many volunteer welfare agencies that are involved with veterans.

The RSA has asked for funding to pay for four fulltime regional welfare officers to support veterans health and welfare requirements. The role of the Veterans' Affairs New Zealand case management service is to provide assistance to veterans and their families with a variety of health and welfare issues. This service can be accessed by veterans and their families from anywhere around the country. I look forward to hearing your view on how the case management service is working.

I will talk more about case management and other health services in a moment.

Point Seven - Veterans' Affairs New Zealand

You have indicated that you want a review of the operation of Veterans' Affairs New Zealand, out of which you would expect that the role of the Secretary and Director would be separated and the human and financial resource would be increased.

It is this government's policy that there be a single point of contact for the provision of all services to veterans. That point of contact is Veterans' Affairs New Zealand.

The structure of Veterans' Affairs New Zealand is similar to the structure that operates in other agencies such as the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs, where the person who is appointed to hold a statutory role also holds the most senior management role in the organisation.

That said if anyone can draw to my attention any examples of a conflict of interest, or where they have been disadvantaged, I will again look into this matter.

Point Eight - Medals

The Manifesto considers the recognition of medals. I am advised that the issues that you have raised are also the subject of a paper that has been received by the New Zealand Defence Force from the RSA Medallic Committee. I understand that the content of that paper is currently being considered by the NZDF in consultation with the RSA.

Point Nine - Allowances for Gallantry Decoration Holders The eligibility criteria and payment of gallantry decorations is currently under consideration.

The allowance paid to those in receipt of a gallantry decoration is not designed as a stand alone allowance. The rate at which it is paid reflects the fact that it is designed as a supplement to the War Disablement Pension of eligible veterans.

Point Ten - Increase for Funeral Grants and Lump Sum payments on death of Veteran's Pensioner or Spouse

I am arranging for a review of the level that funeral grants and lump sums are currently paid at.

As I say, the Government will continue to look at these issues.

I would now like to speak more generally about services available to veterans.

Case Management

This Government acknowledges and respects the contribution of our veterans to the growth and indeed the very existence of New Zealand and readily accepts the primary role in their welfare.

In that respect, it is pleasing to report that in the last year there has been a steady increase in the number of veterans who are accessing assistance by the case management service run by Veterans' Affairs New Zealand.

Currently, there are 2566 veterans and their families who are being managed through the case management service. The number of veterans and their families being case managed is increasing at an average rate of five per cent per month - that is, as much as 60 per cent every year.

The majority of veterans who access assistance from the case management service are World War Two veterans.

The case management service is free and provides a wide range of assistance to improve the quality of veterans' lives.

Veterans' Affairs is also able to fund additional assistance to case-managed veterans, when support is not available from other sources. In this year's budget an additional $1.6 million has been made available to ensure that Veterans' Affairs is able to meet the growing demand for additional assistance.

I have heard some very encouraging comments on the case management service, but I would welcome more formal feedback from you.

Veterans' Health Care

Lower cost health care is being delivered through the Primary Health Organisations, most commonly your local GP. The Government's focus is to ensure that all New Zealanders, including veterans and their families, have access to affordable primary health care. One out of every two New Zealanders already have access to reduced fees when they visit their doctor, and to reduced prescription charges on most items as well.

I am sure that many veterans will be enjoying the advantages of Care Plus, which has been introduced into a total of 61 PHOs since January this year. The Care Plus package is designed to provide better care to people who have high health needs.

Veterans have also benefited from other health initiatives this government has introduced. This includes progressive funding of up to $70 million over four years that will double the number of major hip and knee replacements performed in four years, and will lower the waiting times for orthopaedic surgery.

I am well aware that we have many veterans who suffer from cataracts. In this year's budget, government has committed additional funding of $17 million over the next three years to provide a total of 7500 additional cataract operations.

This government introduced a policy to remove asset testing for people who are in long-term residential care. The phasing out of asset testing is now fully implemented.

Vietnam veterans

On a different note, you will recall that yesterday the Prime Minister announced that former States Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham has been appointed to chair the Agent Orange Joint Working Group. This working group was established earlier this year to address the concerns of Vietnam veterans.

Following this appointment a consultation process will be undertaken with Vietnam Veterans so as to hear issues and to ensure that these veterans are receiving health care and medal entitlements.

I have been very encouraged at the good progress that has been made by the Working Group. But it is important to keep this moving as quickly as possible

Services, Cemeteries and Memorials

As you are aware, Veterans' Affairs in partnership with local authorities, maintains the many Services Cemeteries throughout New Zealand. With the addition last year of the new Services section at Wanaka, the number of cemeteries maintained by Veterans ' Affairs increased to a total of 181.

A regular programme of maintenance and capital works for the cemeteries is in operation. In recent years, there has been extensive work undertaken in Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland with the construction of new berms and roading. The final phase of work in the Naval area will be completed in this current financial year. Conclusion

This Government is committed to preserving the legacy of our war veterans: to pass on to future generations the lessons they learned, and to honour all those who serve their country.

Addressing the welfare needs of veterans is one of those ways of showing the country's appreciation and gratitude. We are committed to reviewing the services and supports available to veterans to insure their needs and concerns are addressed. That is why I am glad to receive your 10-point Plan.

We welcome the opportunity for ongoing and in-depth dialogue with you. That is why I am glad that 2006 will be the Year of the Veteran. It will provide a further opportunity to honour veterans who have served this country.

I want to thank you for raising the issues that you have. And I want to thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

ENDS


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