Dedicated case officers on farmers’ FHA claims

Dedicated case officers on farmers’ FHA claims


Politics
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge.

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Changes to the Farm Household Allowance claims process will aim to cut bureaucratic frustrations experienced farmers.

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EVER phoned a government call centre and been forced to tell the complex story of your personal issue, repeatedly like a broken down record, while being passed from one seemingly uncaring stranger to another, who it seems is filing their nails or gazing out the window day-dreaming on the other end of the line and hardly listening?

New changes to the Farm Household Allowance (FHA) - that provides financial support for farmers suffering droughts or other fiscal hardships - will aim to alleviate that common frustration and defy that impersonal experience.

Late last year, Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie spearheaded a series of roundtable meetings held with farmers in regional Victoria, in representing Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Representatives from the Department of Human Services also attended the forums with a common complaint being the burgeoning bureaucratic frustrations felt by farmers impacted by last year’s dairy crisis, in applying for Centrelink support.

The FHA program offers a single rate of $528.70 per fortnight and $477.40 per person for couples.

But the complexity of delivering those funds into actual bank accounts, due to farmer’s complex business arrangements, represents an ongoing challenge for claims’ processing and handling paperwork expediently, through the Department of Human Services.

However, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge said a successful pilot program within the Department, resulting from the regional roundtable meetings, to improve the FHA’s speed and processing capacity, had now been made permanent throughout the nation.

Mr Tudge said the “big change practically” was farmers’ FHA claims would now be processed within weeks, rather than months, and if they’re eligible for any payments, then “it will start to flow very quickly”.

He said another critical adjustment to the FHA program will see farmers, when making an application, allocated a dedicated case officer who in many cases would remain with them throughout the duration of their claim.

Mr Tudge said if one individual case officer can’t process the entire claim, there would be a “warm handover” to another individual.

“That means the farmer doesn’t have to keep repeating their story to another person over and over again, which is a great frustration,” he said.

Mr Tudge said previously, an FHA claim took an average of 80 days to process but the pilot program had seen 88 per cent of simple claims processed within 28 days.

He said during the pilot, the average time for a departmental officer to initially review a claim was three days, compared to 38 days in December 2016.

Mr Tudge said a dedicated customer service officer would be assigned to each FHA applicant to work “very closely with the farmer”, take them through what’s required, identify any gaps and speed up the overall process.

He said the pilot program aimed to overcome “considerable frustration” amongst farmers about the length of time it was taking to process FHA claims.

“It’s a good payment for farmers who are struggling and obviously we want to be able to deliver those payments as quickly as possible for those who need it,” he said.

“The pilot was a result of listening closely to the farmers and accommodating what they were saying in the way that we design the process and having more engagements along the way.

“We need to understand farmers often have complicated income and assets and have more complicated financial structures than someone who may be applying for unemployment benefits and that’s what takes time to work through.

“But now we’re able to provide a dedicated person who can get on the phone and talk through the process, identify gaps and speed up the process.

“Instead of waiting for information to travel back and forth between Centrelink officials and the farmers - where there may be gaps in information - we will provide a dedicated officer now who can phone the farmer and be with the farmer throughout the duration of the process as they pull together the complex documentation they need.”

Overall, Mr Tudge said the only negative feedback about the FHA program was the application process’ complexity and the duration it takes farmers to receive payments.

“Farmers have been frank in terms of venting their frustrations on that, but now I believe we have fixed that through the pilot, making it mainstream,” he said.

“It is a good program to support farmers who have unique situations where they can sometimes be very cash poor - despite holding significant assets - but it’s obviously very difficult to realise those assets, aside from selling the farm, which you just don’t want to do.

“I’ve been very happy with how the pilot program has gone and it has exceeded my expectations.”

Mr Tudge said his Department was taking on board some of the “lessons and learnings” of the FHA pilot program and applying it to the way that other claims are processed and administered, to speed up those processes.

He said the Department oversaw 20 different payments and had about 50 different supplements “all of which have their own applications processes”.

“Some are fast and efficient and others can be more so, with the types of changes that we've made through the FHA,” he said.

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