The Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has given its blessing to measures that will allow the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) to employ automated software systems to make decisions on veteran entitlements.
DVA says that a bill currently before parliament — Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill 2016 — will streamline the payment of entitlements under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 (VEA), Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988.
However, the department has claimed that it will not use an automated decision-making process for the purposes of debt recovery — saying it will not engage in a Centrelink-style ‘robodebt’ process.
“In regards to automated debt collection, the Department does not intend this provision [in the bill] for this purpose,” a DVA submission to the Senate inquiry stated.
“While debt calculations are already made with the assistance of computers, debt management and collection will remain a matter where the specific circumstances of the individual and the value of the debt are considered in what action is taken and how it is communicated.”
The department has also said that veterans will not need to have a computer to access DVA services and “will always be able to speak to a DVA staff member” if that is their preference.
The bill will allow the secretary of the DVA to authorise which decisions are made via software.
“Importantly, where the Secretary authorises the use of a computer program to make decisions or determinations, that decision/determination made by a computer program must comply with all of the requirements of particular legislative provisions, in the same way that a delegate’s decision would,” the DVA submission states.
An example given by DVA of computerised decision-making would be fully fully automated online processing of Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
“Use of real-time prescription data for claims processing reduces payment times for approved pharmacists and removes the need for hardcopy prescriptions to be submitted to the Department of Human Services for reconciliation,” the DVA submission stated.
“Online prescribing approvals for certain prescriptions will reduce administrative workload for prescribers and save time for prescribers during consultations by removing the need to request approvals for individual patients by telephone or in writing.”
Another example, given by DVA principal legal adviser Carolyn Spiers during a 16 February inquiry hearing, is reimbursing veterans for travel related to receiving treatment.
“We still, in every case, need a human to make the decision, because that is what the legislation specifies,” Spiers said.
“What we would like to do in those circumstances, where it is algorithmic, or where it is clearly non-discretionary, non-fact-finding, is to have a situation where there would be a system that would seamlessly take an application, determine the application... and produce a result, provide the individual with notice of the result and, in a luxury where the computer system is all lined up, actually make the payment directly.”
Other measures in the bill will allow public interest disclosures of personal information of veterans in some circumstances, such as a treat to life, health or welfare.