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Just because a govt agency says it wrote you a letter, doesn’t mean it did

One of Human Services Minister Alan Tudge‘s justifications for his aggressive media pursuit of writer, blogger and single mother Andie Fox, is that Centrelink made numerous attempts to get in touch with her by phone and letter, and many of these attempts were unanswered.

I have no idea of the validity of these details, however I do know that government agencies are not always accurate in their accounts of interactions with citizens. Despite this fact, the agencies present “their side of the story” as if it is indisputable fact, simply because they say so.

I know this because last year I had some bizarre difficulties with Medicare. I submitted a claim for specialist services, the same claim submitted regularly for the previous eighteen months. The item number is not claimable on the website and as I didn’t have the app on my phone, I’d been submitting via snail mail. There was one occasion on which Medicare said my claim had not arrived, which was resolved after I resubmitted. This was attributed by Medicare to the tardiness of Australia Post.

A few months later I received notice in the mail from Medicare that I had not properly filled out my claim, and they needed further details. I found this very odd, as the claim was exactly the same as the previous eighteen. I rang Medicare.

I was told my claim hadn’t been received. If my claim wasn’t received, how come I’ve just got a letter asking me for more details about it? I inquired. The staff member was excessively rude, aggressive and unhelpful, so I asked to speak to a supervisor. She demanded why I wanted to speak to her supervisor, then shouted that there was no need for me to do that and terminated the call.

When I next managed to contact a staff member I was more fortunate. The staff member was extremely helpful, and we discovered that there was no record of the previous day’s aggressive phone call. We also discovered that the letter I’d received requesting further information had a reference number which did not coincide with that of any Medicare employee.

As well, the staff member informed me that my claim forms, photocopied and returned to me with the demand for more details, had been incorrectly handled: they should have not been returned to me at all, and certainly not as photocopies.

Where are my original claim forms, I asked? We have no idea, I was apologetically told. My claim forms have been photocopied and the originals lost? Breach of my privacy? I suggested.

Who has accessed my claims for specialist services and who knows my history and who is able to access the Medicare system with a false reference number? I asked.

I have never received any answers to these questions. I did speak to another staff member who also could not connect the reference number on my letter with anyone working in the system. I have no idea who in Medicare photocopied my original claim forms, or why, or what happened to them.

I did eventually receive reimbursement and I haven’t had any trouble since.

This is one small example of what can go wrong in government agencies, and that because the Minister says something has been properly executed does not necessarily mean it is so.

It’s also an example of how vulnerable users of these agencies are, and how little control we have over the information we submit. Medicare claim forms reveal a lot about us we might not necessarily want anyone else to know. This is our right.

If a minister can release private data marked “for official use only” to the media, we can have no trust in these agencies. We are in an invidious position: we have no choice but to submit private information. We have now seen how our private data can be used to hold us hostage by agencies and ministers, who might decided to “correct the record” with it if we publicly complain.

I didn’t write about my Medicare experience at the time because I felt concerned that there might be some retaliation, particularly in view of the bizarre circumstances and the misappropriation of my claims by an unknown person. This is how governments silence citizens, and this is why the Fox case is so important.

We now know that Tudge has his staff monitor social media for complaints against DHS.

Well, Minister Tudge, monitor this. Or better still, find out what happened to my private medical data.

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.

 

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27 comments

  1. Steve Laing

    Jennifer – that all sounds very, very dodgy. And if I was the paranoid type, my first conclusion would be that you are almost certainly on “a list” of some type. Perhaps Harq’s use of a pseudonym isn’t such a stretch after all… I hope you are keeping a file with hard copies of all those “official” letters. And that’ll be me on the list too, no doubt.

    The Tudge affair does increasingly look like it is well beyond incompetence. It seems to be about intimidation, and from my own experience with government departments (state rather than federal I have to add) it sounds very familiar. Don’t rock the boat is very much the underlying message…

  2. Cynthia

    Wow!!!
    Thankyou for this article.

  3. jimhaz

    @ Nurses

    Don’t they pay for the internet in some cases? If not, I’d sure be leaving anything like that blank.

  4. helvityni

    My problem is trivial, but true all the same. I had seen a doctor who does not bulk bill, so I went to local the Medicare Centre with my claim.
    Because I have an accent, the new girl started to speak to me in a very loud voice, and very s-l-o-w-l-y.

    I flashed my sweetest smile and asked : why are you shouting at me. She did not have an answer. The very capable senior member of the staff came over and dealt with this basic issue efficiently and most politely. The staff at my local Medicare office are all most professional and polite.

    I have not seen the shouting girl there anymore. ( I live in a small country town/village/hamlet South of Sydney)

  5. nurses1968

    jimhaz
    I don’t know .I’ve never dealt with them but still fail to see how they would have the right to know ISP, email, details etc
    Next they will want user names for sites, Facebook, Twitter etc to keep an eye on comments especially now they can use personal stuff if you disagree with them

  6. paulwalter

    Nurses 1968, it was Tudge who who blew Fox’s privacy,

    Burneys use for the info is opposite to Tudge’s and probably welcomed by Fox…the real damage was done a week ago, for malicious rather than constructive reasons.

  7. paulwalter

    BTw, where are the responses of Kaye Lee and other “feminists” to Wilson’s series?

    Come on, get off your butts and add your voices, even if Labor naively passing the underlying legislation was a contributing factor to its later misuse by the government and probably the reason for the understated response so far from them to the embarrassing Centrelink debacle.

  8. Florence nee Fedup

    After listening to Trudge, I have come to conclusion he has no idea about process in department he runs. Maybe he doesn’t talk to them.

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    I wonder if Centrelink staff peruses social media of staff in his office.

  10. Florence nee Fedup

    Why don’t they approach the owner of comments on social media? That would be more professional.

  11. Florence nee Fedup

    Is there a list anywhere that identifies who has appointed heads of departments?

  12. Tina Clausen

    Well, I’m having an issue with the Centrelinks robo-debt debacle. After nearly having a melt-down sorting out a ‘discrepancy’ letter and Centrelink eventually conceding I owe nothing, I was told via sms an email confirming I owe nothing would be sent to my MyGov account. Three months later, contacted the Minister, phone call then from someone within DHS, saying they could see letter had been sent – nothing to view on MyGov when I logged on, next then told I could not in fact receive an email confirming I owed nothing but would be sent a letter in the mail now. Waiting with ‘not bated’ breath or I would be dead by now.

  13. Sir ScotchMistery

    Re the request for the name of the ISP, just write Telstra/Bigpond or nothing at all. There is no use they can make of that information without a court ordered surveillance of your system/s.

  14. paulwalter

    Mike Seccombe on the Drum tonight also wondered at the weak responses so far from Labor.

  15. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    I’m glad that Tudge has his social media people monitoring this right now coz …
    … I’ve been on the phone to your office today, Tudge making a recommendation to you via your telephone receptionist that you need to get your stupid head together with anti-Christ Porter’s stupid head and significantly INcrease the level of eligible and acceptable paid employment income, one is allowed while also being on welfare benefits eg Newstart.

    At the moment, Newstart recipients are only able to earn a pathetic $48/fortnight! It should be more like $480/fortnight if only for a month or two.

    What planet are you living on, boy?

    People on welfare are living severely below the poverty line, so if they can provide for themselves some much needed relief from their austere circumstances from some paid employment, you better understand, it is YOUR and Porter’s responsibility to adjust the allowable income levels to allow this withOUT any adverse consequences to their welfare payment and withOUT any debt being raised against them.

  16. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    At the risk of being called a Labor basher – yet again – I also wonder why Labor is so weak in its defence of the defenceless on unemployment welfare. I’ve been asking myself the same thing for almost a decade since Macklin made single mums go onto Newstart.

    The only Labor person who I have respect for for coming out squarely and resolutely, is Linda Burney, and I like very much how she has placed an expectation on the AFP to get off their great, big, fat bums to pursue Tudge for his malfeasance.

    Linda Burney for Labor leader!

  17. helvityni

    I have always liked Linda Burney, she was previously part of the NSW Government, Mike Seccombe is one of few honourable journalists left….

  18. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    I like and respect Seccombe too.

  19. Roswell

    helvityni, Linda Burney is a shining light at the moment. We need more of her.

  20. Phil

    The international corporate phone marketing system has reduced the home phone to a mere tool for the delivery of their junk, trash calls, cold calls and general junk propaganda that we no longer answer unrecognised calls to our home line. We have subscribed to the government’s no junk calls system yet the calls just keep pouring in.

    So, if CentreLink was to call our home line and our phone screen reads ‘Private’ or is a number not in our phone internal directory then we won’t answer. Sick to death of the delayed calls from India, Malaysia and elsewhere. If the caller is legit, they’ll leave a message but we can be sure that CentreLink would not leave a message – better to record that the receiver failed to answer their phone – one more guilty citizen to be punished. How I hate this government and everything about it – detestable swine.

    Andie Fox is a true hero – brave – and Tudge is the villain who makes his personal attack with the full power and force of government behind him against a mother, a sole parent. Tudge is the definitive coward.

  21. Phil

    Yes Steve Laing – I see it that way too – intimidation. Given the unfolding inquiries into the whole grubby CentreLink scandal will be calling for witnesses to come forward, the warning is clear for all to see in the Andie Fox case. This is one nasty government. March in March is gaining fuel by the day. Let’s hope enough Australians have had a gutfull of government incompetence, authoritarianism and now this intimidation.

  22. zoltan balint

    I have been trying to call A Tudge for the last two weeks (from a pubic phone – just in case I have to yell – don’t want to upset the dog at home) but can not get him to answer his phone. Mr Todge if you are reading this can you please answer your phone this is important. Sorry to do this via a public domain but …

  23. helvityni

    “Our defence investment is massive,” Turnbull said. “We are spending 2% of GDP as you know. The Americans have complained that many of their allies have not been close to that.”

    The other American allies might spending their money on their own people, not on wars and fighting….

  24. Max Gross

    This government is at war with ordinary Australians. And it is malicious and vindictive enough to crush any critics at will.

  25. iggy648

    Jennifer, the AFP are the enforcement arm of the Liberal Party. Don’t hold your breath.

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