Businesses are charging people hundreds of dollars to help them access their superannuation early to pay for tummy tucks, drug rehab, dental work and IVF.
SuperCare and Super Release Assist both advise and manage applications for people seeking to withdraw funds early to cover expenses ranging from medical procedures to mortgage payments and funerals.
While money in super is generally locked up until the payer reaches 56 to 60 years old, the Department of Human Services allows their release on “compassionate grounds” in “rare cases”, including to treat a life-threatening illness, chronic pain or chronic mental illness. A medical specialist and another doctor must cite a legitimate medical need in each application sent to the department.
Although an individual can apply by themselves, Sydney-based SuperCare and Super Release Assist, located in Hervey Bay, Queensland, advertise services providing “education and personalised guidance” and “professional advice” during applications.
“There’s a socio-economic graph of people in Australia that don’t have the money and they need the surgery, and it’s as simple as that,” SuperCare general manager Zain Merhebe told The New Daily, adding that the typical sum claimed was around $7000 to $11,000.
“It’s their money,” he said.
Watch an online ad for SuperCare below:
Anna Walters, client relations manager at Super Release Assist, said she receives about 10 to 15 calls a week, often from people struggling to pay for dental care.
“I think there’s a real gap in the market with regard to affordable dental treatment in this country,” she said.
Ms Walters, who charges $645 per application, has also helped several clients access their super for rehab retreats aimed at treating depression and substance abuse.
‘Not what super is for’
Ross Clare, a senior researcher at the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia, which speaks for the entire super industry, expressed concern that retirement funds were increasingly being used in circumstances outside the original intent of the law.
“I haven’t seen anything to indicate that it was put in place so that individuals who’ve run out of money could get tummy tucks or IVF,” he said.
Mr Clare said it was potentially a conflict of interest for firms to recommend certain medical professionals to clients who need a diagnosis for their application.
“There’s a bit of mutuality in that,” he said. “They refer to those doctors who will routinely find cases of chronic mental illness.”
Human Services has seen an explosion in applications for early super release on compassionate grounds in recent years, with 37,105 requests received in 2016-17, compared to some 19,000 three years previously. The department approved a little over half of applications lodged the last financial year, releasing more than $290 million.
“The legislation does not prevent companies like SuperCare providing such a service,” a DHS spokesman said. “Applications that are assisted by third party companies are processed under the same criteria as those that are lodged without this assistance.”
Cosmetic surgeries such as tummy tucks and breast reduction can be justified on physical health grounds – for example, chronic back pain – while IVF may be accepted as necessary to treat mental distress.
Laith Barnouti, who practices at Plastic Surgery Sydney, said he deals with one to two cases a month, often for excess skin removal or breast reduction. Sydney-based plastic surgeon Darryl Hodgkinson said he sees about three cases every month for procedures such as rhinoplasty and tummy tucks.
“We don’t say come on in, you might be able to get your super,” Dr Hodgkinson said. “They seem to know they can get it through their super.”
Both doctors insisted all procedures have legitimate medical justifications, while Mr Merhebe and Ms Walters rejected any suggestion of super being used for trivial reasons. Mr Merhebe said his company provided a valuable service for people with unmet medical needs and insisted none of its medical partners received payment of any kind.
“For some women, they say, ‘You know what? There’s no point having superannuation if I can’t leave it to somebody, I want to have a child’,” he said, noting that its $680 fee was only charged after a successful application.
“That’s a medical condition, they don’t choose to be infertile.”
John Power is a Melbourne-based investigative journalist.