Budget 2020: Centrelink services funded and Medicare telehealth sticks

Some of the funding earmarked for the Cashless Debit Card will provide for a trial of emerging payment acceptance technologies, the government said, meanwhile just over AU$111 million will be used to expand Medicare telehealth services.

The Australian government in 2016 introduced the trial of a welfare quarantining system, via a Cashless Debit Card (CDC), that aimed to govern how those in receipt of welfare spent the money, with the idea being to prevent the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, and some gift cards and block the funds from being used on activities such as gambling.

80% of the recipient's funds are placed on the CDC, which is managed by Indue, with the remaining 20% to be paid into a bank account.

"The Australian government is considering the best possible ways to support people, families, and communities in places where high levels of welfare dependence co-exist with high levels of social harm," the government explains.

"The Cashless Debit Card is testing whether reducing the amount of cash available in a community will reduce the overall harm caused by welfare-fuelled alcohol, gambling, and drug misuse."

As of early March, there were 12,150 participants in the CDC trials across Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, the East Kimberley, Ceduna, and Goldfields regions, with the government saying it had plans to extend the trial into the Northern Territory and Cape York.

Services Australia is charged with oversight of the initiative, and as the department was inundated with a new wave of welfare payments in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government announced it would place a temporary pause on transitioning new participants onto the CDC.

In its Budget 2020-21, unveiled on Tuesday night, the government reignited its CDC initiative, promising "ongoing funding" but it did not tell the public exactly how much it would cost to control the spending of people on welfare.

See also: Shorten says Centrelink is increasingly targeting vulnerable Australians  

From 2020 through 2024, funding will be split between three agencies: The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Services Australia, and the Department of Social Services.

"The government will provide funding to continue the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) in existing locations on an ongoing basis as well as provide support to transition participants from Income Management to CDC in the Northern Territory and Cape York region," the Budget papers say.

This funding, the government said, will also provide for a trial of emerging payment acceptance technologies.

"The funding for this measure is not for publication (nfp) as negotiations with potential commercial providers are yet to be finalised," it claimed.

The government claimed similarly in July, when it handed down its economic and fiscal update, that it would make "changes to the [Centrelink] Income Compliance Program", but had marked the funding allocated as "not for publication".

With the federal government in May admitting the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) initiative -- robo-debt -- incorrectly issued 470,000 debts to those in receipt of welfare, the government is currently in the process of refunding around AU$721 million to Australians.

The debts to be refunded are those which used automation techniques to calculate money owed to the government post-2015.

"The government will provide AU$721 million over four years from 2020-21 to refund all repayments made on debts raised based on wholly or partially averaged Australian Taxation Office (ATO) data under the Income Compliance Program," the Budget says.

"Refunding of eligible debts commenced in July and will continue through the 2020-21 financial year. The financial implications of this measure are not for publication due to ongoing legal proceedings."

TELEHEALTH GETS AU$111.6 MILLION INJECTION

The Budget 2020-21 is also boosting funding for telehealth services, which were introduced earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the period spanning 13 March to 8 September 2020, the Department of Health said approximately 28 million COVID-19 telehealth services have been provided to 10.15 million patients by 76,400 providers.  

For 2020-21, the government will provide an additional AU$1.1 billion to support access to health care services and reduce the risk of community transmission of COVID-19.

On the tech side, AU$111.6 million has been earmarked for the extension of temporary COVID-19 telehealth services and AU$18.6 million has been allocated towards bringing IT systems up to speed to support Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) telehealth services.

See also: Australian Medical Association calls for telehealth permanency

"We have committed over AU$16 billion as part of the government's ongoing health response to the COVID-19 crisis," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in delivering his Budget speech.

"Securing millions of masks, gowns, goggles, and ventilators, we have worked with the states to significantly increase the capacity of Intensive Care Units across the country.

"We have extended Medicare subsidised telehealth services, enabling more than 30 million consultations since the crisis began.

"We have secured access to more than 80 million doses of potential vaccines for COVID‑19."

Also included in the funding is AU$711.7 million to extend temporary MBS pathology items for the detection of COVID-19, including testing for asymptomatic interstate freight workers and aged care workers; AU$170.8 million to extend dedicated respiratory clinics to manage and diagnose COVID-19 cases to take pressure off hospitals; AU$42 million for rapid specimen collection and testing of COVID-19 in aged care facilities; AU$4 million to continue the Remote Point of Care Testing Program in regional and remote Indigenous communities throughout Australia; and AU$400,000 to remove the MBS registration processing fee.

Partial funding for this measure has already been provided for.