A Prospect woman is facing a debt of more than $163,000 to Centrelink after ticking the wrong box on a Carer Payment form nine years ago, causing her to transfer to the wrong payment.
Eleonore Wells, 65, received notice of the discrepancy in September and a review was unsuccessful. Her Newstart Allowance is being reduced by $180 a fortnight to start paying down the debt - a measure that would take 35 years before the debt was paid off.
But Ms Wells said the issue stemmed from a poorly-designed application form and she feared many others could find themselves in the same situation. She has sought legal advice, claiming she did not "knowingly" make the error.
Ms Wells was on the former Widow Allowance when she applied for the supplementary Carer Allowance in 2011 for the care she provided to her elderly mother.
While filling out the Carer Allowance form, Ms Wells indicated that her mother only needed low-to-moderate care in her responses to 22 questions. The form then flowed into the Carer Payment application - a primary payment - which Ms Wells continued to fill out, responding "yes" to a question asking if her mother required "constant care".
She said she was unsure at the time whether this was the correct answer, and believed Centrelink would contact her if there was a discrepancy in her answers.
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As a result, Ms Wells was deemed eligible for the Carer Payment and Carer Allowance and was moved off the Widow Allowance - a similar level of payment, which she was actually eligible for.
She received the Carer Payment and Carer Allowance for eight years until last year when she moved on to Newstart.
In January, Ms Wells received a phone call from Centrelink asking how many hours of care per day her she had provided her mother.
"I answered truthfully. I didn't keep a record of how many hours I was there. They decided I wasn't giving my mother constant care for eight years, they've just decided themselves how many hours' care I provided," she said.
"What about the $500 per fortnight I would've been entitled to on the Widow Allowance?"
The $163,355 debt has left her floored, and Ms Wells said she would likely be paying back the amount for the rest of her life. She also claimed she was eligible for the Carer Allowance during those years, at least.
"The whole way they worded everything and set it up, to where it's not clear, and then they don't check up on you for those years to make sure it's all correct? The system needs to change," she said.
"To suddenly come after you all these years later, it's just wrong.
"I know plenty of people who are on this payment that wouldn't be providing eight hours' care a day either."
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen said Ms Wells would be provided support.
"While we can't go into the details of Ms Wells' case, we are working with her to ensure she understands her next steps and receives all the help we can offer," he said.
DHS considers both the claim form and a medical report from the care receiver's treating doctor in determining eligibility. DHS cannot retrospectively grant a payment, so even if Ms Wells was eligible for another payment during the eight years, it cannot cover the cost of the overpayment.
A change in circumstances can trigger a payment review, which occurred for Ms Wells in January.
An appeal can be lodged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.