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Austudy overpayment, Disability Rejection and Newstart Stuff-ups

Debt amount: 
$16000
Date debt issued: 
Wednesday, 3 October 2018
Period debt occurred: 
August 2015 to September 2016
Has your case been referred to a collection agency?: 
No
Payment Type: 
Austudy
Appealing Debt?: 
Yes but I lost
Tell us about your debt and how has this affected you? e.g. anxiety levels, financial and accommodation stress: 

I received the letter in October 2017.
The debt was for the period of time I was paid Austudy and was studying part-time at university.

I got four letters in total: one for the $13,000; and three for the start of semester payments of $1025 each.

The reason I went down to part-time study (in 2015) was due ongoing health problems.
I provided Centrelink with my enrolment details for the year and nothing further was said.
In 2016, I became very unwell, both physically and mentally. I was even referred to the acute mental health care team at the local hospital.
I decided to hold off on my studies, because I realised I was not going to get better in the near future. I notified Centrelink that I was no longer studying, and to cancel my Austudy payments.

The next part of the story was my application for disability pension.
My doctor provided the evidence for my application and I submitted the forms. I did not hear back for several weeks, and had to phone them to see what was happening.
Centrelink then asked me to provide further information about my finances, which meant I had to obtain additional documentation.
After providing this, I waited a further few weeks and then my application was rejected.

After the rejection, it dawned on me that I wasn't getting any payments at all from Centrelink.
Apparently I was supposed to apply for Newstart in the meantime, but no-one had told me that.
So I had to do the application process over again!

In the end, I was without payments for a total of three months, living off my parents and borrowing money from them.

The stupid thing is that when I went down to part-time study, they told me that's when I should have applied for Newstart allowance.
So they were actually paying me less with Austudy than what I was actually entitled to!

I had an interview to appeal the decision.
I told a staff member in my appeal interview and they said it didn't matter. I also told them I have medical evidence to prove that I was very unwell at the time, but my appeal was rejected.

So now I am on Newstart and have to get my doctor to write a medical certificate every three months to exempt me from job search.
When I first applied they sent me to an employment agency who commenced stalking me until I provided the medical certificate.
I couldn't attend my first appointment, and told them I couldn't but they still harassed me and my family on the phone that day, and told Centrelink to cut off my payments.

After all that has happened, I feel like a failure and it is my fault somehow.
They have made me feel like a criminal and a fraud.
I have never owed money in my life, never even had a credit card or a loan.
I worked for years before I got sick and paid taxes like everyone else.

To be honest, I just couldn't deal with it - gave up -and agreed to having $20 repayments taken out of my benefits every fortnight.

I put it to the back of my mind until I happened to recently hear that other students in my cohort were targeted as well.
These people are just trying to study to become essential members of society like nurses and paramedics.

So that is why I am sharing my story. I hope I can get some help to fight this.

How do you feel about the way the Government has handled this process?: 

I find it atrocious that The government and Centrelink offer no counselling or crisis service to people who have received these debt letters. I had no help whatsoever from Centrelink and associated staff. Phone contact is impossible, I found it quicker to go straight to the office with whatever questions I had. I actually had to email Hank Jongen personally to get answers as to why my disability application was taking so long. I was left to my own devices, and only because I have family support I was able to cope emotionally and financially.