More than 300 Department of Veterans' Affairs employees have urged the Prime Minister for a staffing increase in order to address increasing wait times for compensation claims to be processed.
In an open letter sent to Scott Morrison and Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester on April 16, seen by The Canberra Times, employees called on the federal government to deal with significant staffing shortfalls.
"A crisis is occurring with veterans' mental health. They don't have the support they need," the open letter said.
"As the government's agency responsible for supporting vulnerable veterans, it is vital that DVA has the resources required to properly support our veterans and their families."
The letter, which was drafted by Community and Public Sector Union deputy national president Brooke Muscat, said staffing caps within the department had led to a large backlogs of veterans' compensation claims that were not processed.
"DVA is forced to spend money on labour hire companies instead of getting the work done," the letter said.
"Last year, DVA spent $82 million on labour hire companies when it could have more workers for less money if they were directly employed, like us."
It was revealed in an estimates hearing in October 2020 that almost half of the department's workforce was made up of contractors, with labour hire making up 42 per cent of staff.
Criticism has been levelled at the staffing caps imposed on the department.
The department submitted an application for more staff in 2020 but was rejected.
It has applied again for additional staff in the upcoming federal budget in May.
The letter said a significant amount of money would be able to be saved if contractors were replaced with hired employees.
"We estimate DVA could employ an extra 400 staff if all those labour hire workers were made APS employees," it said.
"While DVA received one-off funding for claims backlog processing, this is not enough. The ongoing funding model must be amended to reflect the veteran population."
It was revealed in the open letter than processing on some compensation claims were not started until they were more than 450 days old, with thousands of claims being left unprocessed for more than a year.
As of June 2020, there was a backlog of more than 44,000 claims that were yet to be processed, which represented a 74 per cent increase on the previous year.
The number of compensation claims have doubled between 2017-18 and 2019-20.
The department did report it had experienced a boost in productivity in processing claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While more claims were processed in 2020 compared to 2019 for permanent impairment claims, it was confirmed those claims were treated as a priority while initial liability claims were not being processed as fast as the department intended.
Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester said the government acknowledged there were delays in processing claims.
"Resources for DVA will be considered as part of the budget process, and I can't pre-empt that outcome," he said.
"However, I am committed to ensuring the department has the most appropriate balance of resourcing to manage claims.
Mr Chester said there had been more than $54 million invested in the past two years to deal with the rise in claims being processed.
A department spokesman said executives from Veterans' Affairs were meeting regularly with staff to hear concerns.
Opposition spokesman for veterans' affairs Shayne Neumann said the issue needed to be addressed in the federal budget.
"What's needed is more secure work and better pay for DVA staff," he said.
"The government should be a model employee and should crack down on the staffing cap."
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