Medicare data used in debt recovery?

The Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert says that as many as one in five robo-debt recovery notices may be incorrect, but that’s not stopping the Government expanding the operation.

It is now using Medicare data in a bid to uncover “discrepancies” between Centrelink claims and medical records.

Fairfax Media reported that the Department of Human Services (DHS) quietly released a gazette last week outlining a new data-matching program aimed at uncovering social security fraud by matching “identities and details held in Centrelink records with those held in Medicare records”.

The robo-debt computer program has been checking Centrelink records against Australian Taxation Office (ATO) records, but has now been expanded to involve Medicare because “data-matching multiple records is more likely to identify … premeditated fraudulent activities,” the notice said.

It says that Medicare data will be used to cross check Centrelink customers entitlements over the past five years.

The robo-debt program, introduced by the Coalition in 2016, uses an automated data-matching and assessment process to raise welfare debts against people flagged by the system as having been overpaid. However, it calculates the debt by taking a fortnightly average rather than discovering the exact amount claimed.

The DHS does not provide people with an explanation of how their debt was calculated and has been widely criticised for its heavy-handed approach that involves threats of seizing money from bank accounts.

Figures from the DHS released in Senate Estimates in March showed that 444,989 robo-debts were raised from July 2016 to December 2018. Mr Robert says $1.9 billion worth of Centrelink debts have been recovered and 80 per cent of notices “resulted in a debt being collected”.

However he says he apologised to a woman who received a debt notice for her dead son.

“Because of the size of the debt being uneconomical to recover and the length of time, the department should have simply waived the debt,” he said during question time.

“They didn’t, my department was wrong, I apologise for it.”

Former Opposition leader Bill Shorten wants the system scrapped, describing it as “seriously malfunctioning”.

“It is being enforced in a harsh and cruel way and we now know it is being driven from above,” he said.

Australian Privacy Foundation health committee chair Bernard Robertson-Dunn says the expansion “risked unfairly targeting vulnerable Australians”.

“The people who are the least likely to defend themselves are the most likely to be on welfare or using Medicare,” he says.

Dr Anna Huggins, senior lecturer in law, at Queensland University of Technology, wrote in The Conversation “it’s not always appropriate for important decisions to be made by a computer”.

“In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) prohibits certain types of decisions from being solely automated. It also creates rights for individuals who are affected by automated processing.”

She says we need similar safeguards in Australia for high stakes automated decisions made by government agencies.

In 2016, the DHS admitted to uploading sensitive Medicare claims records to the wrong recipient’s electronic health records 86 times in 12 months.

UPDATE

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has reached out to us to correct some misinformation in the Fairfax story.

“This is not the case,” said a DHS spokesperson. “Reporting linking Centrelink-Medicare data matching with online compliance is inaccurate and only serves to confuse two very separate programs administered by the Department of Human Services.

“It also wrongly refers to online compliance reassessments as ‘incorrect debt notices’.

“The online compliance program is a payment review process to identify discrepancies between income reported to Centrelink and the ATO.

“The Medicare data matching is a fraud investigation tool that is not related to online compliance in any way.

“The purpose of Centrelink-Medicare data matching is to protect customer identity, and highlight identities that have been potentially exploited, so the department can take action to protect and assist its customers.”

Read the full DHS statement.

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Written by Janelle Ward

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