Government backflip on paid healthcare for SEATO nurses

Civilian nurses who served during the Vietnam War could soon get access to a Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) Gold Card that covers the cost of medical treatment for all conditions earlier than first flagged following an Australian government decision to fast-track the vital support.

Over 200 volunteer civilian nurses joined surgical and medical teams to provide aid during the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1972 under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) program.

Decades later, many nurses began experiencing the same health conditions suffered by military forces such as cancers and Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD).

Since the mid-90s, SEATO nurses have campaigned to secure the same health entitlements provided to the military under the Veteran’s Entitlement Act 1986 (VEA) that gives eligible individuals a DVA Gold Card and access to paid healthcare.

In December last year, the Australian government announced members of the Australian civilian surgical and medical teams that provided aid, training and treatment to local Vietnamese people during the war would be made eligible for the Gold Card from 1 July 2020.

The announcement, seemingly a step towards long overdue justice, left SEATO nurses blindsided at having to wait another year and a half to begin receiving entitlements.

“We’ve got pretty sick people and in another 18 months it’s likely that a third to 50% [of the remaining nurses] won’t be with us,” Convenor of the Civilian Nurses Group, Dot Angell, told the ANMJ at the time.

In developments last week, the Australian government pledged to bring forward the delivery of the DVA Gold Card to 1 July this year so nurses and doctors can access the medical treatments they need.

It said it had “listened to the concerns of these men and women” in fast-tracking the timeframe for eligibility.

Eligible members will be able to submit an application for a Gold Card once the Bill, currently being debated before Parliament, is passed.

“This measure was to be introduced in 2020; however, Australian civilian surgical and medical team members raised concerns that waiting another 18 months was not ideal for an ageing group, some of whom have serious health issues,” MP Karen Andrews said during the second reading of the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019 in Parliament last Thursday.

Dot Angell, who suffers from two autoimmune disorders and PTSD, believes the Australian government bowed to public pressure following its announcement last year and said SEATO nurses were treating the development cautiously after years of fighting unsuccessfully.

“I’d say I’m delighted but I’m still wary from the point of view that it still has to be debated,” Dot said.

“I think most of us will wait and see the whole thing unfold before celebrating because we’ve been burnt too many times.

“It means that the minute legislation is passed, members can apply for a Gold Card and this would be a tremendous benefit to those people who are suffering at the moment from their illnesses and having to foot the bill themselves.”

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