Centrelink bungles left a Dunsborough retiree high and dry for five months after a number of ‘systematic failures’ left him without an income.
Last year, Graham Niccol retired aged 73 years after a long career as a marine engineer in the shipping industry.
Mr Niccol required heart surgery and after he had recovered from his operation put an application into Centrelink to receive the age pension and age pension bonus.
Five months later Mr Niccol was yet to receive a payment from Centrelink, in fact he was yet to have his application approved.
‘System failures’ at Centrelink saw Mr Niccol’s application be rejected because the organisation claimed they had not received his paperwork despite the paperwork being in their system.
For the next five months Mr Niccol meticulously documented his dealings with Centrelink which saw his application go round-and-round in circles.
For a man who was supposed to be resting and enjoying his retirement the stress caused him great grief and angina chest pain.
“I am now indeed aware that it is the terms, conditions, rules and laws that the Federal Government have imposed on Centrelink to process that is causing the massive workload on Centrelink,” he said.
After two and a half months of no communication, a Centrelink officer admitted to Mr Niccol his application was complex and the organisation were very busy, ‘complex applications took a lot of time.’
“Since February 6, it has been 22 weeks and nothing,” he said.
The heartache did not stop there, changes to the age pension asset testing meant that the age bonus Mr Niccol is eligible for would be asset tested.
“I disagree 100 per cent with this as it is a bonus, a bonus is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as an extra payment or benefit,” he said.
“Thank you for not claiming the pension at age 65 and continuing to work until you turned 73. Here is your bonus payment which will be used to reduce your pension entitlement amount,” he said.
“In my opinion, subjecting this bonus to the assets test is ridiculous to say the least as it results in a fortnightly pension reduction of $156.
“This does not make any sense and is again a money grabbing move by the Federal Government to reduce the already meagre pension payment.”
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen said processing times could vary depending on the complexity of the individual case and how many claims have been submitted to the department at any one time.
Mr Jongen said age pension claims often involved assessing complex financial income and asset information, and they frequently needed to seek additional information from the person making the claim.
He said in 2016-17, the department made age pension payments to about 2.5 million pensioners.
“Age pension claims could be submitted up to 13 weeks before reaching age pension age and the new streamlined online claim process ensures more claims contain all the information needed, so they could be processed as quickly as possible,” he said.
“If a person’s claim is successful, they may be paid from the date they submitted their complete claim to the department.
“The department prioritises the processing of claims for anyone experiencing financial hardship and encourages people in this situation to contact us.”
WA senator Rachel Siewert said she had lost count of the number of times she had heard from people that Centrelink had lost information when people were trying to access a whole range of income support.
Ms Siewert said she had heard so many times from people who were trying to get Austudy waiting an entire term to receive a payment.
“What are these people doing for support? We have told people to go to their senators or federal MPs if you are in this situation, it is ridiculous.
“Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. I suspect if an application is a bit more complicated people look at it and say, I have to deal with this, they need more information and it does not get progressed.
“Each time they do this it takes another week for the information to come back and it should not be happening that way particularly when people have provided the information.”
Ms Siewert said when people went to Centrelink they were already vulnerable because they had lost their job, or were ill, or had retired and needed an income source.
“They can be frustrated because they had not been able to get through to Centrelink and often people were already disadvantaged in the first place because they have been long-term low income.
“Centrelink’s IT system is antiquated, they have problems there and they are under a lot of pressure from government to chase every dollar.
“The government treats people like they are cheating the system, it is very clear from their approach that they have to get back all this money from people who are in hardship and vulnerable.
“It all adds up in my opinion, there is a lot of pressure on the organisation.”
Ms Siewert believes more policy work needs to be done to make sure Centrelink had enough staff and adequate support in a way that their vision was to support the community.
“Particularly the most vulnerable members of our community,” she said.
“This punitive approach to people who are on a social safety net, is not seen as being punitive we have to screw down these people, which is the approach this government takes.
“If there was a different approach around support for Centrelink from government and income support, and that a social safety net was there for a reason and a really important part of our society it would actually help the mindset of Centrelink to shift.
“I think a lot of the problems are because of the mentality the government drives with Centrelink, it is now seen as being the baddie.
“I have spoken to people who are so over Centrelink and the way they are treated, yet when you talk to them about the individual people there is a lot of support for the people who work for Centrelink.
“People were not having a go at the people who worked for Centrelink, it was the institution and government policies.”
The author of the blog Centrelink – the worst it has ever been, financial planner Melinda Houghton said in the last year things at Centrelink had fallen through the floor and happened very slowly.
Ms Houghton said there did not seem to be any changes at the organisation and because their systems were inadequate they were not processing applications on time .
She had one client who was out of pocket for medical costs because she did not receive a health care card and when it did arrive she was already due for her next one.
Another client was eligible for a carers allowance and did not receive it for more than six months because she was told it was not a priority.
“The systems are broken, one of the worst ones for us is that they want us to upload documents to their system but there is nothing which flags documents have been uploaded,” she said.
“You have to call them and tell them you have uploaded documents then wait for them to process it, in the meantime they quite often cut things off because they have not had time to process it.
“There is a problem at the moment where they are sending out requests for data.
“You send it back, they keep sending letters saying they have not received it and cut you off even though a document has been sitting in their queue for five weeks.
“They are quite quick to cut people off but there is no system in place to help people in need.”
Cape Financial Planning financial planner Cindell Baker said they supported clients by assisting them with forms and preempt issues making the process less stressful and time consuming.
Ms Baker said most clients had to complete additional paperwork depending on their circumstances and it was not always clear when completing forms on their own.
She said Centrelink now allowed people to lodge an application 13 weeks prior to eligibility so applicants could receive an answer within this time frame.
“Waiting for your age pension to commence can mean having to fund living expenses from savings or other means,” she said.
Department of Social Services spokesperson said the bonus scheme was not tested to reduce pension payments.
“An asset test is applied to ensure fairness when assessing a person’s capacity of support themselves, and their need for taxpayer funded assistance,” the spokesperson said.
“The assets test has generous free areas below which a person’s rate of payment is not affected, starting at $258,000 for a single homeowner and up to $594,500 for non-homeowner couples.”
After the Mail contacted the Department of Human Services to find out why it had taken five months to assess Mr Niccol’s application, Mr Niccol received a call the next day from Canberra advising him his application was approved.