Australia's most vulnerable die waiting for Centrelink payments

No matter how hard Services Australia works to reduce wait times for Centrelink, Medicare and associated services, someone will most always experience an extraordinary wait time.

Some people will die waiting.

Around 130 people diagnosed with a terminal illness died before receiving a disability support pension (DSP) last year, new data reveals.

Greens’ senator Rachel Siewert described the figures provided to the Senate this week as “unacceptable”.

Read more: Older Australians receive less support than people who qualify for NDIS

She says people with a terminal illness should have their claims prioritised and should not be required to go through the full application process.

“You would think that this process would be expedited for someone with a terminal illness,” she told Guardian Australia.

“I’ve had concerns expressed to me by constituents about the time taken and the process when they’re supporting a loved one with a terminal illness. And so, it’s extremely disappointing that this is occurring.”

By law, anyone with fewer than two years to live qualifies for a ‘manifest grant’ – meaning their claims should be approved “based on the presenting medical evidence” without the need for further assessment.

Manifest grant recipients most commonly have terminal cancer.

The disability support pension pays $952.70 a fortnight, compared to $620.80 for the jobseeker payment. Tightened eligibility and application requirements have made the DSP harder to obtain.

But Ms Siewert says the delays are more likely related to processing issues at Services Australia rather than to the tightened rules.

Policy officer at Economic Justice Australia Linda Forbes questioned the efficacy and accuracy of Centrelink’s digitised systems, suggesting that severe cases were not being effectively expedited.

This may not be the case when an applicant can speak to a Centrelink employee face to face.

“It used to be the case that these sorts of cases would be identified really quickly and prioritised,” she said.

“It is hard to imagine why that isn’t still happening.

“Definitely, there’s something going wrong, or the numbers wouldn’t be so high.”

Read more: Services Australia has a plan to reduce application processing times

Ms Siewert also obtained data that showed, in the five years between 2016 and 2020, 2026 people died before their disability support pension claim was approved – an average of 405 per year.

However, these figures included terminally ill people who died from the prescribed illness as well as those who died from causes not necessarily related to their condition.

And the figures are a fraction of the approximately 950,000 claims decided each year.

Advocates say the delays significantly affect the lives of terminally ill people seeking help from the government prior to dying.

Katrina Newman, of DRC Advocacy, told Guardian Australia how one man with bowel cancer spent his last days surviving on the jobseeker payment.

He died in hospital with his claim still pending, 54 days after he first lodged the application with Centrelink.

The agency did, however, approve his claim posthumously and paid his estate around $4207 in back pay.

“It’s unacceptable that people are put through this,” said Ms Siewert, who has called on the government to review its processes to stop people dying while waiting for support.

Debate rages around jobseeker payment rates, but the focus is also turning to extended waiting times and decreasing access to the disability pension.

The Senate has now agreed to hold an inquiry into payment processes.

In 2019, the average time for a disability support pension claim to be processed was 49 days.

Some claimants reported waiting years to access the payment.

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Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said the “vast majority of claims” were processed in a “timely way”.

“We also have an enhanced claiming process for people who have a terminal illness to ensure their claim is assessed as quickly as possible,” he said.

“We’ll also connect them and their family to other support available, like social worker assistance.

“Sadly, in a very small number of cases, some claimants have died before their claim could be finalised. Last year, these cases were 0.2 per cent of all DSP claims finalised during this time,” Mr Jongen said.

“DSP may still be granted in these cases, in recognition of a person’s eligibility from the date they submitted their claim to the date of death, with payments made to the claimant’s estate.”

Are you surprised at the wait times for terminally ill people? Have you had any such experience with Services Australia wait times?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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