Complaints about Australian government services on the rise

Posted: 10 November 2017 2:11 pm
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Complaints are rising, but they're still being handled promptly and effectively.

In 2016-2017 the Commonwealth Ombudsman received a total of 41,301 approaches, a 9% increase over last year. The response rate remains prompt though, with 85% of complaints being resolved within 90 days.

It's not equally spread across all services. The postal service complaint rate dropped by a sharp 18% compared to the year before, with 4,213 total postal industry complaints this year.

However, complaints about the National Disability Insurance Agency are on the rise, with the number of complaints multiplying from only 62 in 2015 to 329 in 2016-2017. The Overseas Students Ombudsman also fielded more complaints than the year before.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) also found its complaint rate increasing a sharp 30%, from 10,662 in 2015-2016, to 13,832 in 2016-2017, largely due to an increase in the number of Centrelink complaints.

Also, in an effort to better understand the potential scope of abuse problems within the Defence Force, the ombudsman also launched the Defence Force abuse reporting function on 1 December 2016. Since then it's picked up 163 reports of serious abuse, contributing to a significant overall increase in Defence agency complaints.

There were only 635 total complaints about Defence agencies in the complete 2016-2017 reporting year, but the serious abuse reporting system, that's been in operation for less than a year, has already picked up 163 reports. This represents a very significant portion of the total.

Higher complaint rates may highlight areas that need improvement. For example, it's clear that Centrelink has been problematic over the last year. It's also worth noting that a high complaint rate shows that having a place to complain is important. For example, the number of people utilising the new Defence Force serious abuse reporting system.

This can be seen in private health insurance too.

Health insurance complaints

Satisfaction remains high among those who complain to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman, though there's still room for improvement.

On the whole, the Ombudsman might be resolving private health issues very satisfactorily, maintaining a fairly consistent satisfaction rate over the years despite sharp increases in the complaint rate in previous years.

That trend continued this year, with the total number of complaints to the Private Health Insurance Ombudsman hitting 5,750 in the 2016-2017 period, compared to 4,416 the previous year.

However, the complaint rate can vary widely between different insurers. The following table shows all the relative market share and complaint rates for some of Australia's larger insurers. It includes only those with a market share or complaint rate above 1% of the total.

When the red line's higher than the blue it means they're getting more complaints than they should. When the blue line is higher than the red, it means they're getting relatively few complaints for their amount of customers.

Some of the highlights are:

  • BUPA and Medibank: Australia's largest insurers by market share. Both receive about as many complaints as one would expect for their number of customers.
  • CUA: It only has a 0.6% market share, but accounted for 5% of the complaints received by the Ombudsman. Australian Unity and had similar results to a lesser extent.
  • Defence Health and HBF: These insurers spur very few complaints relative to their market share, suggesting that they have exceptionally strong customer service.

However, it's worth noting that most of the complaints are probably based on failures to communicate, rather than being any real reflection of the quality of cover, or value for money.

The most common complaints in 2017 were:

  • Hospital exclusions and restrictions – 120 complaints: These are complaints from customers about treatments that they thought they were covered for but weren't.
  • Membership cancellations – 97 complaints: These are complaints about delays or problems associated with processing requests to cancel memberships.
  • Pre-existing condition waiting periods – 93 complaints: Most insurers have very similar waiting periods for pre-existing conditions, but they're still a common complaint.
  • Verbal advice – 91 complaints: Complaints from customers misunderstanding their benefits when explained on phone calls or during branch visits.
  • General treatment benefits – 58 complaints: Complaints typically concerned with health insurance extras, and whether services are covered, and the amount covered.

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