A hard-hitting Ombudsman’s report has found major problems in how Centrelink responds to review requests from clients owing money or whose benefits have been cut.
Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher said his organisation had identified systemic weaknesses in Centrelink’s review processes including lack of transparency and insufficient education about options.
In a report released on Wednesday, the Ombudsman found those problems produced delays, inaction and what was referred to as “appeal fatigue” whereby customers facing extended delays in having their appeal determined simply give up.
“Centrelink customers have a right to independent review of decisions and the review process should be transparent, timely and result in the best outcome for the customer,” Mr Asher said in a statement.
“The options for review, including benefits and implications, need to be clearly explained.”
The Ombudsman report said Centrelink had advised that it had now started the staged implementation of a review of its decision framework.
It said its examination of the appeals process highlighted the need for Centrelink to identify and rectify causes of delay in the review model, including obstacles to recognising and acting on requests for review.
The report said Centrelink had put significant effort into developing effective review processes but it currently fell short of the ideal.
Centrelink, the government’s welfare agency, paid seven million customers $84.2 billion in social security payments in 2009/10, and considered 207,871 requests for review in the same period.
Almost half the reviewed decisions were changed, often because new information became available.
The Ombudsman report cited the case of disability pensioner Mr B who received a bill for $15,000. His appeal against the decision continued for more than five months with the debt eventually reduced.
Another client, Ms A, was told she owed $50,000. Only after the intervention of the Ombudsman and her local MP was the debt reduced by a quarter.
In many of the cases cited by the Ombudsman where Centrelink claimed to be owed money, clients had to fend off debt collectors while their case remained under review.
Mr Asher said the report highlighted the need for Centrelink to identify and rectify causes of delay, including obstacles to recognising and acting upon requests for review.
“The (Ombudsman’s) office recognises that Centrelink has put significant effort into developing effective review processes. However, it presently falls short of the ideal,” he said.