Darwin charities concerned by energy retailer Jacana’s handling of financial hardship cases


Posted

October 09, 2018 08:30:08

Aisea Moala’s lungs are so damaged that he relies on two powered machines to stay alive at his home in Darwin’s northern suburbs.

The Tongan volunteer pastor sees four specialist doctors to keep complications at bay, and as he is not eligible for Medicare, his medication and treatment cost thousands each month.

Recently, Mr Moala and his wife, who live on one income, made the expensive decision to move to a newer, cleaner flat where dust was less of an issue, but they found getting the power connected unexpectedly difficult.

He said they owed about $700 on their power bill when he called the Territory’s energy retailer, Jacana Energy, to connect the account at the new address.

“They refused to do that because, they said, we needed to clear all our old debt, pay all our bills first so it’s zero before we transfer.”

Mr Moala said this was despite already making payments towards the debt on a payment plan.

When he sought help through the Salvation Army for his $700 debt, they were willing to help.

But three months earlier Mr Moala had been to a different emergency relief charity regarding a separate power bill and was also offered a sum of money to pay it off.

Mr Moala said Jacana saw his request for help through the Salvation Army as him shopping around for aid and rejected the application.

“The word they’re using, they said: ‘I’m shopping around.’

“I felt I might not be able to keep my health up to date because I couldn’t use the machine I use every day.”

‘You can’t do this anymore’

The pastor’s power has now been reconnected, but charities say they are concerned at the way the retailer is handling hardship cases.

Jacana’s financial hardship program, Stay Connected, allows for selected charities to choose people in need of help with their bills and distribute electronic vouchers on behalf of Jacana.

Those relief providers allege some staff at the retailer have a poor understanding of financial hardship and are declining assistance even when the charity determines the person to be in need of a voucher.

Jacana provides its bill assistance vouchers through five organisations at a value of $175,000 per year.

“If we deemed that the clients had very, very high needs — particularly if they had children, people who were sick, elderly — we would assist with whatever voucher we felt was appropriate,” said Vicki Borzi, a financial counsellor with Somerville Community Services.

“That might be $200 to sometimes $500. I remember ringing [Jacana] and wanting to pay at the higher end for a client and was told no, it would only be $200.

“That was basically the start of it.”

Robert Rooth from Anglicare NT said its clients had also been knocked back.

“There’s been instances where we may be assisting a client and speak with Jacana, and at the point where we try to finalise it, there might be a ‘You can’t do this any more’ or ‘You’re not allowed to do that’,” Mr Rooth said.

“It seems to be a bit of a moving of the goalposts.”

Ms Borzi said she was told by staff that the changes were part of a new system within the retailer.

She said she tried to get more information on the new system but could not.

“I was told by Jacana that it was part of their new fee system … even though they gave us this lump of money and understood that we were all financial counsellors and could quite easily assess the client’s needs, rather than they, who don’t see the clients.”

Another charity said it could generally only help one person with a $200 voucher each week, and carefully chose from five or six requests a day as to who was most deserving, only to occasionally have them declined.

Policy to prevent ‘voucher shopping’

Jacana chief executive David Brown denied there had been any change in the company’s financial hardship policies, saying it was trying to prevent people from applying to multiple charities.

“I think they have their perspective and we have a policy that we apply pretty uniformly,” Mr Brown said.

“What we try and discourage is people shopping around for vouchers and having multiple vouchers from multiple agencies.”

He said staff were able to see when multiple vouchers had been applied to the same account whereas charity providers might not.

“The intent of the scheme is to spread that over as many needy people as we can, not to have them concentrated on a few.”

Policy under review

In July, a report into Jacana’s Stay Connected policy by the NT Division of the South Australian Financial Counsellors Association gave the policy a “four out of 10”.

It found the policy and the way it was expressed as “legalistic, blaming and punitive” and “appears to focus on debt collection rather than keeping customers engaged and connected with the program”.

The report calculated there were 2.44 disconnections for every 100 customers in 2016-17.

“There appears to be a blanket approach to customers in financial hardship, whereas [other retailers] have policies concerning family violence, culturally diverse customers and special-needs people,” the report continued.

Another Jacana customer the ABC spoke with said she had tried and failed to initiate a payment plan after her power was disconnected following a mental breakdown, and was asked to pay more than $400 upfront.

Single mother of two Lucinda Hayes said she’d been feeding her children cereal and sleeping through power-less nights in her lounge room to escape the night-time Darwin heat.

However, the report did praise staff as clear, accessible communicators, and Ms Borzi said she could sometimes get a win for her clients.

Mr Brown confirmed it was standard procedure for Jacana to recover some or all owing money before reconnecting clients.

He said the policy was due to be reviewed by the end of the current financial year.

“That process has started and we will engage with our various experts to improve that policy,” he said.

Topics:

charities-and-community-organisations,

poverty,

welfare,

electricity-energy-and-utilities,

people,

human-interest,

darwin-0800



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