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.