15 March 2016
by Julia Medew
Thousands at risk of unfairly losing welfare benefits because of "no jab no pay"
Research suggests 18 to 50 per cent of children who are listed as not fully vaccinated on the register, may in fact be fully vaccinated.
Thousands of Australians are at risk of having their welfare payments unfairly slashed because of inaccuracies in Australia's immunisation register, which is being used to process the Turnbull government's new "no jab, no pay" rules, health care workers say.
There are also fears that children are receiving unnecessary vaccinations, or doses at times when they shouldn't be because of errors in the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register (ACIR), and problems with how GPs and nurses upload information onto the database.
While the government plans to save $500 million through its new policy of cutting welfare payments for families whose children are not fully vaccinated, immunisation policy expert Julie Leask said research suggested 18 to 50 per cent of children who are listed as not fully vaccinated on the register, may in fact be fully vaccinated. A previous audit of records in Western Australia also pointed to this problem.
Associate Professor Leask, of the University of Sydney, and the Public Health Association of Australia, told a senate hearing about the research last year and urged the federal government to delay implementation of its new policy until the register was more up to date, but the government went ahead with it from January 1.
Now, immunisation nurses and parents are reporting problems with the system which government workers are urgently trying to fix.
One immunisation nurse said teenagers had been receiving unnecessary vaccines because up until this year, the register only included histories for children aged up to seven years. She said this meant that parents of children who received vaccines after the age of seven and who did not have paperwork to prove it, would have to get their children newly vaccinated so it is recorded on the register for welfare payments.
The nurse, who did not want to be named, said this problem was likely to be affecting thousands of recent migrants to Australia whose children were aged over seven when they received catch-up vaccines in Australia, or who received immunisations overseas when they were younger.
One mother told Fairfax Media that she was shocked to receive a letter from the government recently warning her that she would lose her childcare benefits if her daughter did not receive a third dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine before March 16. This deadline was imposed on her despite medical advice that her daughter should receive the third dose no earlier than April 12.
The mother said that when she contacted the government to ask more about this, she was told that she had 28 days to "fully" vaccinate her child or her childcare benefits worth hundreds of dollars would be cut off.
"There was nothing we could do about it," she said. "I find it troubling and concerning that our children's immunisation schedule seems to be decided arbitrarily by a glitch in the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register completely at odds with medical recommendations."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health acknowledged the register may not be completely accurate and said the departments of health, social services and human services were working to address implementation issues "to ensure families do not lose payments as a result of administrative processes".
"ACIR records are accurate for the vast majority of children. If a parent believes their child's ACIR record is incorrect, they can contact their vaccination provider who can notify proof of immunisation to the ACIR or request an amendment to the existing record," she said.
"In the event that there is no vaccination record on the ACIR, or the parent is unable to provide evidence to the vaccination provider that their child has received the required vaccinations, then it is assumed that the vaccines have not been administered. The vaccination provider will develop a catch-up schedule based on the documented history and vaccinate accordingly."
Dr Brian Morton, a GP and spokesman for the Australian Medical Association, said he was aware of problems with the system. He said while receiving an extra dose of a vaccine was very unlikely to be harmful to people, it was counterproductive for the government to being making errors with vaccination policy.
"I would prefer to see people paid the money first... with some leniency given. It can be tightened up further down the track," he said.