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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20537

Mrs IRWIN (4:30 PM) —This afternoon I want to draw the attention of the House to a problem which leaves thousands of Australians out of pocket as a result of an uncaring, bureaucratic procedure. My constituent, Mr Alan Drake, received treatment in a private hospital and was discharged on 15 April this year. On 17 April, Mr Drake received a bill from his specialist dated 16 April for the sum of $100 but offering a cash discount, making the amount payable $69.35 if the account was paid in 30 days.

The bill was received the day before Good Friday and Mr Drake, who was at the time still recovering from surgery, was not able to present his claim to Medicare until Tuesday, 22 April. At 9 a.m. on 22 April, Mr Drake lodged his claim at the Liverpool Medicare office. By 12 May, 20 days after Mr Drake lodged his claim, as he was worried that he may have to pay an extra $30.65 he called at the Liverpool Medicare office to ask if the cheque had been sent. He was told that the cheque had not been issued.

On the 16 May, 30 days after receiving the bill, Mr Drake contacted the Ombudsman's office and was directed to contact the New South Wales Medicare complaints and customer service manager. The manager informed him that the cheque had been issued on 12 May—20 days after the claim was lodged. When he asked why he had not received the cheque, he was told that cheques were sent by off-peak mail and that delays could occur. When he told the manager that he would be required to pay the full $100 as the 30 days had expired, she suggested that when the cheque arrived he should send only the Medicare cheque and include a letter explaining the reason for the delay and requesting that the additional amount be waived.

Mr Drake again contacted the Ombudsman's office and was informed that there was a legislative requirement of a 16-day delay in the processing of claims but that the office would look into why off-peak mail was used. The cheque finally arrived on 19 May—27 days after the claim was lodged and three days overdue to claim the discount. Fortunately for Mr Drake, his specialist accepted the Medicare cheque as full payment. But I am not sure that all providers may be so generous and that in other circumstances patients may simply have to pay the full amount despite the reason for the delay being entirely in the hands of Medicare.

I raised this issue by way of a question on notice and, in reply, the Minister for Ageing, representing the Minister for Health and Ageing, agreed that he was aware of the discount for payment within 30 days. The minister also confirmed that there is a statutory minimum payment time of 16 days, although no reason was given for the need for this delay or why it needs to be 16 days. As to why the Health Insurance Commission uses off-peak mail, the minister pointed to the discounts offered by off-peak delivery.

But this is the catch-22 for people making claims on Medicare: having held up the cheque for 16 days, the Health Insurance Commission wants to save a couple of cents by using off-peak delivery, but saving those few cents could have cost Mr Drake over $30. I am sure that in other cases people have had to pay out even more than that, because of the policies and processes of the administration of Medicare. Why does the Health Insurance Commission have to wait 16 days—more than half the time allowed to claim a discount from providers—before it sends a cheque, when it was only 10 days when Labor was in government? Why does it send the cheque by off-peak mail when it takes up to a week to reach the person waiting to pay their bill? The last thing that people who have just had medical treatment need is the worry of waiting for a cheque in the mail. Surely the Health Insurance Commission can do better—and it should be doing a lot better.