Costs of War Soar as Returned Afghanistan Vets Fall to Disability
By: Andrew Trounson, The Australian 9 June 2015
The number of Afghanistan veterans being accepted for disability support is soaring as the physical and mental costs of the war hit the home, sparking a warning better interventions are needed to limit the long-term human and economic cost.
The number of Afghanistan veterans with an accepted disability has almost trebled in three years to 3444 and is up a third in just the past 12 months, according to figures posted by Veterans Affairs last week.
Instances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are up a staggering 300 per cent since 2012 to 1040, and have increased 45 per cent in the past year. Accepted claims for PTSD are growing at a rate of about 300 new cases every year.
While the level of disability varies, the number of Afghanistan veterans qualifying for "gold" cards, which for this young cohort will be those judged to be totally and permanently impaired by their injuries and conditions, now amounts to 474, up from 331 a year ago.
More than 26,000 Australian military personnel served in Afghanistan and the Middle East from 2001 to 2014, of which 41 were killed and 262 wounded.
The biggest single accepted complaint among Afghanistan veterans is hearing loss and tinnitus (1682) followed by PTSD.
Accepted claims for back injuries amount to 634, ahead of depression at 554. Claims for alcohol dependency or abuse amount to 289.
Philip Clarke, a professor of health economics at Melbourne University, said the fast-rising instances of PTSD suggested more and better treatments were needed to help veterans recover.
The length of future deployments could be re-examined given his research on Vietnam veterans that found rates of disability were highly correlated with length of service. "Clearly, the challenge is for the community to look at ways to mitigate the long-term impact on returned soldiers of the war," Professor Clarke told The Australian. He said the community did not appreciate that the post-war cost of caring for veterans would exceed the cost of deployments, and more effort should be put into minimising the human and economic costs.
He notes the pension for an Afghanistan veteran totally and permanently disabled at age 30 will cost the government about $1.7 million, excluding healthcare costs. Healthcare costs for gold card members are running at $21,700 a year per veteran, which includes World War II veterans.
About 13 per cent of Afghanistan veterans are on some disability support, compared with about 5 per cent who served in the East Timor deployment that goes back to 1999. Professor Clarke said if Vietnam was any guide then many more Afghanistan veterans would end up on disability support. Among Vietnam veterans, where 61,000 Australians served, more than 70 per cent are now on support.
"The figures show there is going to be a significant and ongoing human cost, but also a significant and ongoing cost to the community which will need to be funded," Professor Clarke said.