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Two examples of government waste in the space of a couple days

April 7th, 2011 at 08:45am

I have come across two rather interesting cases of government waste this week. Two cases where money is being paid to government employees to carry out pointless tasks.

Firstly, I had a CT scan a couple days ago. Medicare was covering some of the scan, and I was paying the rest which, from memory, was $160. After I had paid the $160 and my Medicare details had been recorded, I was informed that I would be receiving a cheque from Medicare in about four weeks time which would be addressed to the doctor who performed the scan, and that I would be required to forward the cheque to the clinic.

This is utterly ridiculous. If I had paid the full amount for the scan, I could have walked in to any Medicare office and received the Medicare portion of the payment in cash on the spot. And if I go to a bulk-billing doctor, the payment for the consultation goes straight to them…so why are the government wasting all of this time sending out payments to people who aren’t the ultimate recipient of the payment, only for the cheque to be handed to the doctor who then receives their payment? Wouldn’t it be simpler to pay the doctor directly via an electronic transfer? The answer is yes…but I suppose the government wouldn’t need as many people to administer that.

Secondly, I received a call from the tax office. My phone was off at the time, so they left a message which included my full name and the fact that they wanted to talk to me about my superannuation, and oddly that I “have no need to panic”. So I called them back on the number provided and, to my astonishment, got straight through to a human (the number must have a high priority in the phone queues) who asked me for all sorts of personal information (I googled the phone number first, it was legit) and then informed me that they wanted to talk to me about a “lost” superannuation account so that they could instruct the superannuation fund to reinstate it. He took a few moments to look up the account and then said “oh, that’s odd, the account is active”. My immediate reply was “let me guess, the Australian Super account?”, I received an affirmative response and then said to him “I sorted that out about three months ago” after which he apologised for taking up my time and asked if there was anything else he could help me with…not that he had actually helped me. I declined and the call ended.

Apart from the wasted time and expense of having a public servant make calls about superannuation accounts which are perfectly fine, the whole “lost super” thing is a rort and a giant waste of time. You pay fees to a private business to maintain these superannuation accounts, so they should not expire (or “become lost” to use the government’s preferred terminology) and default to government ownership simply because you haven’t contributed to them for a while. That’s like having a savings account with a bank and the bank seizing the funds because you haven’t checked the balance in the last week.

And then there’s the question of, if he can just push a button and reactivate the account with Australian Super (although I suspect it’s not so much the push of a button, but rather the completion of about 73 forms, a number of letters to the super fund, and about seven government employees overseeing the whole thing), why doesn’t he just go and do it…why ring me about it?

It amazes me that my tax dollars are going towards funding these kinds of useless and wasteful activities. It is a clear sign that the government is too big and could do with a bit of a prune.


Entry Filed under: Bizarreness,Samuel's Editorials

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  • 1. frank83  |  April 30th, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Hey Sam Medicare rebate cheques are forwarded to you and not the doctor to stop doctors from defrauding the system by claiming rebates for patients they did not see.

    If a patient receives a rebate cheque on behalf of the doctor for a consultation or procedure that hasn’t occurred it alerts both them and the government the doctor is fraudulently billing the taxpayer. You’re right insofar as if you’d paid the full amount your mere presence in a Medicare office to claim the rebate would be evidence enough the consultation had gone ahead. Hence this method clamps down on Medicare fraud saving the government (i.e.taxpayers like you) millions of dollars.

    Can you think of a better, cheaper way to verify consultations without breaking doctor-patient confidentiality i.e. a bureaucrat sitting in on consultations with you or accessing your medical records?

    All of this is information is easily available via Google. If you want to be taken seriously as a journalist I suggest you do basic research like this before you label something as crazy.

  • 2. Samuel  |  May 1st, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Actually Frank, that’s wrong. It might be the stated purpose of mailing the cheques to the patient, but it doesn’t help to stop fraud, and it’s also inconsistent when compared to bulk billing.

    The reason it doesn’t help to stop fraud is that the fraud prevention really happens before the cheque is mailed. In my case, what happened is that my medicare card was sighted by the receptionist, who also swiped my card and had me sign the receipt which was printed out by the card swiping machine. This receipt was attached to a copy of the invoice, which was sent off to Medicare. The card swiping machine’s receipt bearing my signature is evidence that my card and I were both present at the medical facility, and receipt’s details matching the invoice’s details is evidence of the medical service having taken place.

    Regardless of whether the card swiping machine on-site is the electronic version or the old manual carbon paper imprint version, this collection of evidence should be enough to prove that the transaction is not fraudulent, and if doubt still lingers for some reason, then a mailed cheque or a phone call might be appropriate to clear up the confusion.

    As it happens, the standard practice of mailing the cheque to the patient is an unnecessary expense and unnecessary delay in payment, all in the name of preventing something which the processes before the point of mailing the cheque should have already dealt with.

    The whole thing is also inconsistent when you think about the bulk billing process, where Medicare pays for the whole service. In those cases, the paperwork (which is less than the above procedure, as it usually lacks an invoice) invokes a payment directly to the doctor, not a cheque delivered via the patient.

    If, as you (and the government, it would seem) contend, the whole “cheque via the patient” procedure is necessary to prevent fraud, why is it not used for bulk billed services?

    And on your final point, if you want to think that believing what the government says without applying any critical thought to it is better journalism than applying critical thought to something, well it’s an interesting theory, but I don’t expect to see any journalism courses promoting it any time soon.

  • 3. frank83  |  May 2nd, 2011 at 12:08 am

    You wrote: Actually Frank, that’s wrong. It might be the stated purpose of mailing the cheques to the patient, but it doesn’t help to stop fraud, and it’s also inconsistent when compared to bulk billing

    Once again you sail way off the mark: it’s not what “the government says” it is what actually happens. If you bothered to do any research whatsoever you’d find the many instances the “card swiping” procedure that you seem to have so much faith in has fallen victim to unscrupulous medicare fraudsters. It is not conjecture on my behalf, it has happened before – which is why I told you to do some research before shooting your mouth off and looking like an idiot.

    then you wrote: and if doubt still lingers for some reason, then a mailed cheque or a phone call might be appropriate to clear up the confusion. You mean, the “utterly ridiculous” waste of cash you seem to deride in the first place? You complain about government waste then suggest phone calls instead of cheque mail outs to “clear up the confusion”? Because obviously people aren’t called enough at home, right? And manning a call centre full of people to would be cheaper than mailing the cheques out?

    As for your last point: “f you want to think that believing what the government says without applying any critical thought to it is better journalism than applying critical thought to something, well it’s an interesting theory, but I don’t expect to see any journalism courses promoting it any time soon.”

    This is a good example of a strawman argument. You haven’t applied critical thought to anything. You’ve called an established government practice “utterly ridiculous” without doing some basic research to see why it is being done. This isn’t critical thought at all, it’s criticising something at face value to fit with your overall argument that “government is wasteful” and then when I point out the problem with your argument you basically suggest I’m trotting out the government line.

    Once again, your argument seems to be that the act of swiping your Medicare card and procuring your signature is sufficient to stop fraud. Well so did the government fifteen years ago. Until they realised they were being massively defrauded, which is why they introduced the system of mailing cheques. So if I’m believing what the government says without applying critical thought what you’re doing is even worse: Believing what the goverment said fifteen years ago that card swiping and signatures were sufficient to stop fraud despite numerous cases of Medicare fraud to the contrary. Which apparently journalism courses are promoting in your opinion?

  • 4. Samuel  |  May 2nd, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Fifteen years ago, fraud was a problem and mandatory mailing of cheques was a decent short-term solution, until a more sophisticated way of detecting fraud could be implemented. We now live in the 2011 world of computer systems which are very good (not perfect, but a very good primary detection system) at detecting fraud. Banks, for example, have computer systems which monitor credit and debit card transactions and flag likely cases of fraud. It works quite well for them, and allows them to work with law enforcement agencies to catch the offenders with a very good success rate.

    In the modern day, the card swiping system in conjunction with fraud detection systems, is enough to catch the majority of fraudulent transactions at a much lower cost than posting a whole heap of cheques, and at a much lower cost than old manual methods of tracking fraud would have cost fifteen years ago (or what those same methods would cost today).

    The secondary methods of making calls or posting cheques or otherwise investigating transactions could then be used to follow-up on transactions which the computer systems consider suspicious. I’m not proposing, as you contend, using the same system that I’m deriding. What I am saying is that those systems, which do cost a lot of money, have a legitimate use as a second step if the fraud detection systems cast doubt on the legitimacy of transactions…and as this would be a small fraction of the transactions which take place, the cost would be quite small compared to the current costs. It would also have the added benefit of reducing the delay in payment to the medical practitioner.

    Now if, in Medicare’s vast array of data centres, no such fraud detection system existed, then this would be a serious problem which requires immediate rectification. That said, thankfully, such systems are in use by Medicare and Centrelink among others within the government, and as such there is no good reason for the antiquated mandatory mailing of cheques to doctors via patients to continue.

    I see that you completely skipped over the fact that the current systems sees no problem with honouring bulk-billed transactions, and only forces gap-payment transactions through the antiquated and expensive cheque mailout process. If the cheque mailout process is as vital as you’re telling me, does this then mean that the bulk-billing system is open to wide-scale fraud? Do you really think that it’s not going through those fraud-detection systems?

    So no, on your final point, I am not believing what the government said fifteen years ago that the mere act of swiping cards and having somebody use a pen on a piece of receipt paper is enough to stop fraud. I am also not believing that the current procedure of compulsorily mailing cheques is Medicare’s fraud-detection system when I know for a fact that it is not. Once upon a time it was, but thankfully, things have moved on…even if this little remnant of history was never abolished.


April 2011

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