2 Mar 2016
THE federal government has been posting warning letters to parents who have done the right thing and vaccinated their children, threatening to cut off their child care benefit payments as soon as this week.
Parents whose shots are up to date but whose official records have not been updated because of a bureaucratic logjam have been receiving the letters from Centrelink.
GPs have reported upset parents returning to surgeries where they had the shots done, asking them why they had received the warnings.
They have also seen a rush of parents, who have fallen behind vaccination schedules, to get their children’s shots to avoid losing up to $19,068 per child in welfare payments.
One letter from Centrelink seen by NewsLocal cautioned a Sydney couple that they had until March 3 to get their daughter vaccinated or risk losing their benefits. This was despite the fact that her vaccinations were up to date.
“As at the date of this letter, the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register shows that your daughter does not currently meet the immunisation requirements,” it states.
The letter then advises parents they “need to talk to your GP or vaccination provider and commence a suitable catch-up schedule for their age”.
Failure to do so “means that you may have to pay full child care fees for her and you may also lose any entitlement to Child Care Rebate.”
NewsLocal has spoken to parents, GPs, registered nurses and clinic staff, who outlined reasons why records may not be up-to-date, triggering the unnecessary warnings.
One is because the Government is struggling to keep on top of the paperwork submitted in recent weeks for children who have been vaccinated overseas — and these “purple forms” need to be verified before being manually entered.
A parent from the Hills was told by Centrelink over the phone that his child’s records were “unlikely” to be revised before the deadline because of this backlog.
Another issue is that some GPs may be using out-of-date software to update records online.
“If a parent believes their child’s record is incorrect, they can contact their vaccination provider who can notify proof of immunisation or request an amendment to the existing record.” – Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen
Centrelink relies on this register being up-to-date to check whether children are fully immunised before warning parents their payments will be cut.
Asked about the glitches, the Government said its immunisation records were “accurate for the vast majority of children.”
“These letters reflect what is recorded in the ACIR at a specific point in time. This means that, in a small number of cases, a parent may be sent a letter before their manual notification has been processed,” said Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen.
He said since the January 1 changes the department has received a large number of applications from vaccination providers.
While vaccination providers were encouraged to submit these updates online, some providers update via a paper form — in some cases because their software does not list all overseas vaccines.
“If a parent believes their child’s record is incorrect, they can contact their vaccination provider who can notify proof of immunisation or request an amendment to the existing record,” Mr Jongen said.
If families ignore the warnings, they stand to lose up to $10,842 per child in childcare benefits and up to $7500 per child for the rebate.
Under the new ‘no jab, no pay’ policy, introduced on January 1, exemptions for conscientious objectors and religious grounds were scrapped in a drive to boost the national immunisation rate.
The aim is to reach 95 per cent fully immunised.
GPs in suburbs where rates are much lower including the inner city, eastern suburbs, Parramatta, and parts of western sydney and the north shore have seen more children since the new rules came into effect.
A Bondi GP said he has seen a rush of parents in recent weeks, some who were “in a panic” about the new hurdle.
“I have seen a lot of panic and a lot of anger primarily from conscientious objectors because they feel the government has reneged,” he said.
The immunisation clinic at the Children’s Hospital Westmead has also seen a spike in activity in recent weeks.
“We are getting a lot of phone inquiries from parents who might have been flying under the radar until now and we are also getting a lot of appointments at the clinic,” said the clinic’s manager, Clinical Nurse Consultant Karen Orr.
She said some are for older children seeking “catch up” shots because the new policy applies up to age 19.
Dr Brian Morton, head of the AMA’s Council of General Practice, said GPs are seeing a lot more vaccinations in many parts of Sydney.
“I think despite the policy being overly coercive, it seems to be working,” he said.
“And it is probably people who didn’t really have an extreme anti vaxxer stance and were perhaps persuaded by wrong information about vaccines in the past.”
The Australian Medical Association, representing 27,000 doctors, is a strong backer of the policy.
Dr Morton said he was surprised by the relatively low immunisation in some high socio-economic areas like the eastern suburbs and lower north shore where health literacy is higher.
“It is a disappointment and a surprise and I suspect it is mostly a ‘trendy’ thing,” he said.
About one in 10 Australian children are not fully immunised, according to data published by the National Health Performance Authority (NHPA) this month.
In Sydney, the rate is as low as one in four in some suburbs but there have been big increases in many areas since the policy was announced.
Dr Diane Watson, chief executive of NHPA, said the more children immunised, the less chance of disease or an outbreak.
“Too many communities still have child immunisation rates not high enough to ensure disease can’t spread,” she said.
Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, said ‘no jab, no pay’ was a strong financial incentive to immunise.
“The science is clear, the facts are simple. Immunisation is the safest and most effective way to protect against vaccine-preventable diseases,” a spokesman said.
“If a dangerous disease is preventable, then surely we should do what we can to prevent it.”
ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK
Parents stand to lose up to $19,068 per child per year in benefits.
First to be cut will be the childcare benefit worth up to $10,842 per child per year and the child care rebate worth up to $7500.
The Family Tax Benefit Part A supplement worth up to $726.35 may also be axed from next year.
THE SYDNEY SUBURBS AT RISK
Dozens of Sydney suburbs, from wealthy harbourside coves to struggling suburbs in the south west, are at risk of disease spreading because of low immunisation rates.
Health experts say 95 per cent is the rate required to stop an outbreak of disease in the community.
Yet while the latest immunisation rates by postcode reveal big jumps in many parts of Sydney in the past year, the National Health Performance Authority figures show a lot of areas there have a way to go to achieve the national target.
PARRAMATTA and HARRIS PARK had the lowest immunisation rate in Sydney with just 75.8 per cent for one-year-olds in 2014-15.
About one out of every four — or 145 kids — were not fully immunised.
The only area with a lower rate was the anti-vaxxer heartland of BRUNSWICK HEADS on the far north coast of NSW.
The CBD and HAYMARKET recorded the second lowest rate in Sydney with 78.1 per cent.
And MONA VALE had the third lowest on just 83.5 per cent.
The postcode with most number of unvaccinated babies last year — 193 — was MT DRUITT, BIDWILL and SHALVEY. It had the fifth lowest immunisation rate in Sydney on 84.1 per cent.
AUBURN also had a large number of babies — 112 overall — who have missed out on their jabs; its immunisation rate was 84.8 per cent.
BANKSTOWN was another area with 112 children, a rate of 87.7 per cent.
Other parts of western suburbs with relatively low rates included CAMELIA and GRANVILLE (84.5), TOONGABBIE (86.2), EPPING (86.9), LIDCOMBE (87.2) and EASTWOOD (87.5).
BLACKTOWN’S rate was stable at 89 per cent with 118 children not immunised.
The inner west recorded some of the highest immunisation rates in NSW with SUMMER HILL, ENMORE, NEWTOWN, ST PETERS, LEICHHARDT and LILYFIELD all performing well.
However, STRATHFIELD and ROZELLE lagged behind on 88.2 and 88.8 per cent respectively.
DULWICH HILL had the highest immunisation rate for one year olds in Sydney with 97.3 per cent.
In the eastern suburbs, while BONDI’S rate rose sharply to 88.9 per cent in 2014-15, up from 83.1 per cent, it still fell well short of the national target.
The rates in SURRY HILLS, DARLINGHURST, PYRMONT and the city also jumped by between four and eight per cent.
VAUCLUSE, DOVER HEIGHTS and ROSE BAY’S rate for one year olds edged up marginally to 89.8 per cent, up from 88.8.
Over the bridge, rates at MANLY (89.1) and FAIRLIGHT (88.9) were flat and they trailed their neighbours to the north in FRESHWATER and CURL CURL (94.4).
And several suburbs on the lower and upper north shore recorded rates around 90 per cent including ST IVES, ST LEONARDS, LINDFIELD, CASTLE COVE, CROWS NEST and CREMORNE.
Immunisation rates were up by about four per cent in MOSMAN to 90.4 per cent.