Friday, 15 January 2016
Wading through annual reports can be a bit of a chore so I give you some highlights from the Commonwealth Ombudsman Annual Report 2014-2015 with a Shorter Ombudsman cheat sheet for those unable to find time to read the full document:
Department of Human Services & Centrelink
In 2014–15 we received 8116 complaints about DHS programs. This represents a 21.5% increase against the 6682 complaints we received in 2013–14, largely as a result of the 26.5% increase in the number of Centrelink complaints. Complaints about the Centrelink program made up 77.4% of complaints about DHS, followed by 18.1% about the Child Support program. Of the remaining complaints, most were about Medicare and the early release of superannuation benefits programs…..
In 2013–14 DHS paid out $159.2 billion to customers in respect of programs across the Australian Government and ‘touched the lives of around 99 per cent of Australians’ through the delivery of payments and services.1 It is inevitable that errors and delays will occur in an operation of this scale. However, the potential for these errors to impact on the lives of a significant number….
In 2014–15 we received 6280 complaints about Centrelink, an increase of 26.5% on the 4966 we received in 2013–14. This increase follows two years of reduced complaints about Centrelink. While it reflects a greater number of complaints across the board, there has been a particular increase in complaints about difficulties accessing DHS services and its own phone and online complaints mechanisms. These issues are discussed in greater detail below under Implementation of recommendations in Centrelink Service Delivery report. During 2014–15 we investigated 8.7% of all finalised Centrelink complaints compared to the 10.7% we investigated during 2013–14. This reduction is largely explained by two factors; namely, an increase in the number of referrals to the DHS Feedback and Complaints service where a complainant has not already accessed it, and ‘warm transfers’ to DHS’s internal complaint service for resolution where a complainant is vulnerable or requires assistance to communicate their complaint. This ‘warm transfer’ process allows DHS the opportunity to resolve the complainant’s concerns in the first instance without the need for investigation by our office. At the time of transfer the complainant is invited to contact the Ombudsman again if they are dissatisfied or do not hear from Centrelink within the agreed timeframe.
Shorter Commonwealth Ombudsman: Centrelink service delivery sucks but don’t expect our department to do much about it.
Department Human Services & Department Veterans’ Affairs
From 1 July 2014, as part of ongoing reforms to the aged care system, the arrangements for calculating residential aged care fees changed, with DHS taking over responsibility from DSS for assessing those fees.
In late 2014 we received a cluster of complaints about delays in processing of fee assessment applications. People also complained about fee assessments that were affected by errors and instances where people were sent multiple but contradictory assessment letters.
The impacts of these issues varied. Some people were advised by the aged care facility that they were unable to secure a permanent place until they had received notification of an aged care assessment determination, while some were charged higher respite care fees until they received their assessment. Others paid a much higher fee to the provider than they were ultimately assessed to pay in their corrected assessment.
Many complainants raised concerns that the higher fees depleted their funds, forcing some to make hard decisions about as whether their loved one could remain in the aged care facility. They also complained about out-of-pocket expenses incurred from juggling finances while trying to meet the higher fees, pending receipt of a corrected assessment notification and subsequent reconciliation process with the aged care facility. Overpaid fees meant people needed to negotiate a refund with the provider, sometimes encountering resistance because providers were not prepared to review their fees until they had received advice from DHS of the possible refund amount.
Our investigations, and information provided at DHS briefings, highlighted issues with the quality and timeliness of the fee assessments and with the transfer of what we do COMMONWEALTH OMBUDSMAN ANNUAL REPORT 2014–2015 31 data relevant to the assessment.
Both DHS and DVA have been affected by system issues. DHS became aware of the issues shortly after implementation and applied a manual quality-checking process for every automated assessment letter it produced, replacing incorrect letters with manual letters.
At the time a lack of established communication protocols between DHS and DVA also added to the delay in resolving complaints and led to customers’ frustration as they ‘bounced’ between departments. Multiple aged care phone lines maintained by all three departments (DHS, DVA and DSS) further complicated complaint resolution. Our office met with DHS several times, and with DVA, to discuss the complaint issues.
Those discussions centred on the errors made, the fixes they had applied and the strategies DHS and DVA had put in place to rectify the communication barriers and establish interdepartmental complaint-handling processes.
We suggested that the departments invite any customers in that position to make a claim under the Compensation for the Detriment caused by Defective Administration (CDDA) scheme. DHS has agreed to include information about the CDDA scheme in its letters to affected customers. We also suggested that a comprehensive review into the multiple causes of the problems be undertaken so as to ensure they do not occur again in respect of this program or others. DHS has confirmed review processes were undertaken and that this information will be used to feed into future changes.
It has also committed to continue to engage with this office to support future change processes.
Shorter Commonwealth Ombudsman: When the Abbott Government changed the federal department responsible for processing aged care fee assessments things went pear shaped, but we fixed it.
Department of Human Services
Our last two Annual Reports mentioned the arrangements DHS has available to impose service restrictions on some customers to manage the way they interact with DHS. We are satisfied that in many cases this is a sensible practice, which aims to protect staff and other customers from risks presented by physical or verbal abuse.
However, we continue to receive complaints, albeit at a reduced rate, from DHS customers who are unhappy that their access to DHS services has been limited. Our investigations of these matters indicate that DHS generally manages these cases well. However, we consider that some areas of DHS’s administration of these arrangements could be improved. For example, recent complaints indicate that staff do not always clearly communicate the reasons and terms of the restrictions to customers, or record these in detail on DHS’s records.
Shorter Commonwealth Ombudsman: We are definitely not going to say that there may be some sly payback by Centrelink staff occurring from time to time.
In 2014–15 we received 1468 complaints about Child Support, only a slight increase on 2013–14 when we received 1426. We classify the issues in the complaints we receive about Child Support according to whether the complaint was made by a payee (the person entitled to receive child support) or the payer (the person assessed to pay child support). As in previous years, we received just over twice as many complaints from payers (67.2% of all Child Support complaints) as from payees (30.7%).
During 2014–15 the proportion of complaints we investigated about Child Support dropped to 16.6%, compared to 18.4% in 2013–14. This continues the downward trend seen in past years resulting from our focus on encouraging complainants to allow DHS the opportunity to resolve their concerns in the first instance, either via complaints directly to DHS or via having their complaint warm transferred to DHS for priority response.
Shorter Commonwealth Ombudsman: We really wish that men behaving badly were not our problem.
Department of Employment
During 2014–15 our office saw a 53.1% increase in complaints about the Department of Employment with 344 complaints received this year compared to 224 in 2013–14. The majority of these complaints were recorded as being about the actions or decisions of job service providers.
From 1 July 2014 the Government commenced a phased process for ‘strengthening the jobseeker compliance framework’.
This process implemented arrangements to place a greater onus on jobseekers to engage with employment service providers and to impose more stringent consequences where they failed to complete these engagements without a good reason.
As part of these reforms, employment service providers have been empowered to recommend to DHS that a jobseeker’s income support payment be suspended where they have failed to attend an appointment without a good reason.
While the provider makes only a recommendation, as long as the jobseeker is in fact receiving an income support payment and is required to participate in job services, the DHS ICT system will then automatically apply the suspension.
During the past six months we have seen a spike in complaints about employment service providers where a jobseeker has their payment suspended as a result of a failure to attend an appointment, and then experiences difficulty in identifying whether DHS or the provider is responsible for assisting them to reconnect….
from 1 July 2015, job services providers are also able to recommend that DHS impose a financial penalty (in the form of a reduced income support payment) where a jobseeker has failed to attend an appointment….
We will be monitoring complaints in this area closely into 2015-16 to understand the practical implications for jobseekers, and will also engage with the Department of Employment and DHS to discuss their respective approaches to the new compliance arrangements.
Shorter Commonwealth Ombudsman: Trying to implement Abbott Government policy was a bit of a nightmare all round – we will follow closely on Prime Minister Turnbull’s watch.
Department of Social Security
The National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS), which commenced in 2008, is a partnership between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments which aims to increase the supply of new affordable rental housing and reduce rental costs for low and moderate income households by offering incentives to invest in dwellings.
The scheme is administered by DSS. Approved participants are entitled to an annual incentive in respect of each dwelling that satisfies certain NRAS requirements, such as letting the property at 20% or more below the market rent value.
The incentive is either a cash amount or a tax offset certificate that is issued to the Approved Participant and then distributed to the individual investor who owns the property. Approved Participants are usually property developers, not-for-profit organisations or community housing providers.
NRAS is designed so that DSS has a direct relationship with the Approved Participants, but not with individual investors.
In early to mid-2014 DSS became aware that its administration of the scheme was not consistent with the regulations.
DSS also assessed that a high proportion of the Approved Participants’ claims for the 2013–14 NRAS year were likely to be refused.
Shorter Commonwealth Ombudsman: Ooopps!