Published: 26 August 2019
Author: John Cramp
The hazards of Centrelink for injured workers
Injured workers are often obliged to apply for Centrelink payments. This generally occurs when a worker’s claim is rejected or when the worker has received 130 weeks of weekly payments and is viewed by the insurer as having a work capacity. The work capacity is not limited to the worker’s pre-injury occupation or duties but includes any work for which they might be suited.
I am concerned the current Centrelink process adversely affects injured workers who are receiving Centrelink benefits. This can occur in two ways - workers who have their entitlement to weekly payments reinstated or commenced and workers who settle their common law claims.
Injured workers face long delays to review rejected claims
When an insurer terminates a worker’s entitlement to weekly payments or rejects the claim, generally the worker has no choice but to apply for Centrelink benefits. The waiting time to have the matter reviewed by the Magistrates Court is currently about one year. If the Court overturns the insurer’s decision (generally after the matter has been referred to the Medical Panels to determine whether the worker does have a work capacity), the insurer must determine the amount of arrears owed to the worker and also recommence the weekly payments.
Before any money can be paid to the worker the insurer must obtain Centrelink clearance (whether or not the worker has been receiving Centrelink benefits). Problems occur when the insurer notifies Centrelink that they are obliged to recommence weekly payments and asks Centrelink to notify the insurer of the amount of Centrelink benefits to be repaid out of the arrears of weekly payments. Centrelink stops the worker’s benefit as soon as they receive the letter from the insurer.
Upgrades not leading to better outcomes
Until Centrelink’s "digitisation" (their word, not mine) we used to allow 10 working days for Centrelink to respond to the insurer. However recent requests have taken up to 7 weeks to process. Most workers could cope with two weeks without financial support, but seven weeks is stretching most workers to reach breaking point.
We are experiencing the same problem with common law settlements for claims that include economic loss. Again, there can be up to a 7-week delay waiting for Centrelink to advise the insurer that either the worker has not been in receipt of benefits and there is no amount to be repaid, or there is an amount owing.
If the worker is still receiving weekly payments from the insurer, it isn’t so bad. WorkCover has for some time, continued to pay weekly payments until the settlement cheque has been drawn. But if the worker’s weekly payments have ceased prior to the settlement, we again have this long wait before settlement funds can be paid to the worker.
I recently complained to Centrelink Recovery about the delay. I was given the name and phone number of the “Escalation Officer”, who, I was told, could streamline the process in circumstances of financial hardship. I called that person four times over a 10-day period, leaving a message on each occasion. I never received a return phone call.
We often assume that the introduction of new software or computer systems will speed up the processing of data and lead to shorter response times. The Centrelink system upgrade has gone in the opposite direction. I hope that enough people complain to make this an issue that Centrelink needs to address. We continue to speak to Centrelink to ensure they have all the information required for faster processing and follow up at regular intervals to keep our clients informed.