Tena koutou katoa. Bonjour, and good morning.
Thank you for offering us the chance to talk to you about veterans affairs in New Zealand. My name is Bernadine Mackenzie. I'm the head of Veterans' Affairs New Zealand and will be saying a few words to set the scene before welcoming your questions on how we in New Zealand support our veterans.
A few words first to set the scene. We are a small agency composed of 68 staff, and we operate a unit within the New Zealand Defence Force. We are located in central Wellington and cover all of New Zealand from there. We have no regional offices.
Our budget for the past financial year was $136 million to deliver a number of outputs, and another $177 million for the payment of veterans' pensions. As of April 2017 we had 7,600 veterans on our books and approximately 4,500 spouses, partners, children, and dependants.
We target support based on need. At present, about 3,300 veterans are actively managed by 18 case managers. The majority of our veterans have service prior to Vietnam. We are starting to see more contemporary veterans coming forward with different needs, and we recognize the importance of being proactive in responding to the changing needs of our veteran population.
The legislation under which we operate is the Veterans' Support Act of 2014. This act replaced our previous legislation, which dated back to 1954. It was brought in to modernize the support available to veterans and their families, and it has a new focus on rehabilitation, rather than simply paying pensions and providing financial support to veterans. This change recognizes the changed veteran community we are serving—a declining number of older Second World War and Korean War vets, and younger veterans looking to establish a life after they have left the defence force.
An independent review of the legislation is under way to see how it is operating now. That has been in place for two years. The review is seeking input from veterans around New Zealand, and we are contributing to this as well.
Veterans' Affairs is a funder and facilitator, not a service provider. This means it is key for us to have effective partnerships with other organizations. We work with a number of other government agencies including the Accident Compensation Corporation, a comprehensive no-fault personal injury insurance scheme for all New Zealanders; the Ministry of Social Development, which administers payment of veterans' pensions on our behalf; and the Ministry of Health, which supervises an excellent public health system through which veterans can access quality medical services.
We also work very closely with veteran groups, including the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association, and a recently formed advocacy group that represents younger, contemporary veterans, No Duff. Having effective working relationships with these groups is very important to us in connecting with the veteran community because, as I have already mentioned, we have no regional offices.
It is important to state that the legislation under which we operate does not cover all those who have ever served in New Zealand forces. The act defines clearly those who come under its provisions. This means all who served in New Zealand armed forces before 1 April 1974. This was the date when the Accident Compensation Corporation came into being. ACC covers personal injury from accidents from 1 April 1974 onwards, so all veterans, as New Zealanders, would have cover from ACC for injury, illness, or death from accident during service in that period.
We also cover veterans for illness, injury, or death related to qualifying operational service in the period from 1 April 1974. The easiest way to explain “qualifying operational service” is that this means war-like service, when veterans are put in harm's way in the service of New Zealand. Veterans may have cover from both ACC and Veterans' Affairs, in which case we top up the cover received from ACC. Most forms of support that we offer would require a veteran to have service-related injury or illness, although there are some exceptions.
To turn now to what we provide for veterans, this covers both entitlements and services. Pensions and lump sum payments are available to some qualifying veterans, and we will be happy to answer your questions about what is available and to whom.
Services that are funded include treatment, social and vocational rehabilitation, and reimbursement of travel costs associated with treatment and rehabilitation. We also have in place a veterans' independence programme. This is designed to help qualifying veterans to live independently in their homes, and it can also be paid to their surviving spouse or partner for up to 12 months following a veteran's death. It can help with the cost of house and window cleaning, lawn and garden maintenance, home care, medical alarms, podiatry, and home adaptations such as ramps and rails.
We had almost 3,500 veterans or spouses or partners receiving more than 7,000 individual VIP services at the end of March this year. This was an increase of 33% over the previous 12 months. Those who received the services include more than 50 New Zealand veterans living in Australia.
We have simplified the way we deliver these services to veterans, moving from over 20,000 individual contractors to seven master service agreements, covering both VIP services and pharmaceuticals.
I mentioned earlier that our 2014 legislation marked a move away from payment of pensions and introduced a focus on rehabilitation. This gave us ways to provide medical, social, and vocational rehabilitation that can restore a veteran's health and independence after a service-related injury or illness. A major initiative for us at the moment is the development of a rehabilitation strategy that will involve the whole of sector, all those who have some input and support for veterans. This includes us, veterans, the New Zealand Defence Force as a whole, general practitioners, the ACC, the Ministry of Health, and others.
We recognize that effective rehabilitation is not something we can do for our veterans on our own, so we are working with others who all have a part to play on shaping a shared vision that will be effective in what it achieves, and will deliver something very meaningful for our veterans.
We are committed to making sure that our services meet the needs of these veterans, and we conduct client satisfaction surveys to measure this. Our most recent client satisfaction survey had a response rate of 63%, and 93% of the responses indicated they were satisfied with our services. That gives us room to improve, and we plan to do so.
We are conscious that we need to simplify processes and be able to work effectively with our changing veteran population. We have made changes, and we are going to make more. Some of these include implementing a new information management system; reorganizing staff functions to allow more end-to-end processes to be managed in one team, so that veterans and their families have one point of contact; a communications change program, again, aimed at reaching the changing veterans demographic; and making sure our communications are clear and understandable to all veterans.
I know you are particularly interested in management of mental health issues. We can only speak to the types of mental health issues that we see in our current client base. By far the most common accepted mental health condition we see among our current clients is PTSD, followed by depressive disorder, alcohol or substance abuse disorder, and anxiety. We work with medical practitioners, qualified specialist psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors to offer individual one-to-one counselling.
Treatment for PTSD is managed on an individual basis; Veterans Affairs does not run established veteran-specific programs. PTSD is also a key focus of the New Zealand Defence Force for serving and transitioning service personnel. Like you, we are looking at how our counterparts overseas are managing veteran-specific programs for this, and any evaluations that become available about the outcomes of these programs.
You are also interested in transitions. We see the transition process, moving out of the military service, as a significant and challenging milestone in our serving member's life. One of those whom I have with me today, Steve Mullins, heads a directorate with the New Zealand Defence Force. It has transition as one of its pillars, and all that this entails. Both he and I will be happy to answer any questions you have on the challenges and opportunities that this process involves in New Zealand.
With that, I conclude my opening remarks.
Steve, Pat, Clare, and I will be happy to talk now on any particular issues you'd like to raise with us. I will note that Clare needs to leave in about 20 minutes. If there are questions about management of mental health issues that you would like to ask her, you might like to deal with these first.