Comcare ramps up efforts to recoup overpayments
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Comcare ramps up efforts to recoup overpayments

The number of overpayment letters issued by Comcare has steadily increased over the past three years, as the agency marked the 2016-17 financial year with a $467 million surplus.

The federal insurer has been open about its plans to reduce the compensation burden on its bottom line, with a focus on early intervention and getting employees back to work.

Deputy President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Gary Humphries labelled efforts by Comcare to recoup payments "unconscionable" last year.

Deputy President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Gary Humphries labelled efforts by Comcare to recoup payments "unconscionable" last year.Credit:Melissa Adams

While 15 initial overpayment letters were issued by the government insurance agency in 2014, the number rose to 37 in 2015 and as high as 71 in 2016. The number dropped slightly in 2017, with 64 overpayment letters issued.

It is unclear how these efforts to recoup payments to workers contribute to Comcare's financial results, with the agency telling senators there are no projections of how the debts raised affect the bottom line.

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The overpayment letters are the result of formerly successful claims that have been revoked or changed, as well as "overpayments made to service providers [and] off-sets for cancelled bank cheques" the agency said in answers to questions on notice at Senate estimates. In a statement to Fairfax Media, a Comcare spokesperson said "There have been no changes to process or policy that would result in increased debts being raised".

The agency told senators that between October 1, 2015 and September 30, 2017, there were 84 cases where entitlements that had previously been approved on medical grounds by the agency were revoked, with 64 resulting in a debt to the agency being raised with a recipient.

In the same two year period 121 overpayments owed to Comcare were waived, while 53 were written off for a period of time. The rate at which overpayments are written off has also increased. While 18 overpayment claims were written off in the 2016 calendar year, 34 claims were written off in the first nine months of 2017. According to the insurer, the average number of days taken to decide on writing off or waiving a payment is 42 days.

In information presented to the Senate committee, Comcare said the possibility that recovering payments from recipients would cause financial hardship was only considered after the debt had been raised. Recipients of overpayment letters can apply on financial hardship grounds for the debts to be waived or written off.

"For the last three financial years, the average value of overpayments owed to Comcare was $6,738,000," the Comcare spokesperson said. The largest amount found to be owed to the insurer was created in May last year and came in at $628,745.81. Comcare says its policy is not to pursue overpayments of less than $12. "Comcare makes an assessment on overpayments, on a case by case basis, as to whether to pursue the debt," the insurer said.

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Former Australian Federal Police employee Danielle Small's case was reviewed last year, with Comcare finding she was no longer eligible to receive payments, meaning she could be liable to pay back nearly $550,000 she had already received.

Efforts by Comcare to recoup payments to an ACT government employee were labelled "unconscionable" last year by Administrative Appeals Tribunal deputy president Gary Humphries. The agency disputed this description, and said the recipient in that case would not be forced to pay back the money.

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.

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