Australians are tapping their superannuation to pay for plastic surgery, gastric banding, IVF and other elective medical procedures, prompting warnings for consumers to think about the long-term consequences of tapping into their retirement savings.
Consumer groups have also urged people to avoid “early-release super” companies that charge hundreds of dollars in fees to complete paperwork, speed up the application process and connect clients with medical specialists.
Official figures show 29,379 people applied for early access to their super on compassionate grounds in the 2015-16 financial year, a 50 per cent increase on the previous year.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) granted 9,603 claims for medical expenses in that year, with an average withdrawal of $13,000.
‘I’m getting this done for me’
Wollongong woman Lauren Rouse, who withdrew about $11,000 from her super to pay for weight-loss surgery, told 7.30 she was unlikely to live to retirement without the procedure.
“I would have probably suffered with a lot of illnesses and wouldn’t have made it to that age,” she said.
“So I weighed up the pros and cons and thought, ‘I’m getting this done for me’.”
Ms Rouse accessed her superannuation under rules designed to help with the cost of life-saving surgery.
Under Australia’s superannuation rules, people can apply to the DHS for early access to their retirement savings on compassionate grounds for medical procedures, palliative care, emergency mortgage payments or to cover the cost of a dependent family member’s funeral.
For medical procedures, funds can only be granted to treat a life-threatening illness, or to alleviate chronic pain or a mental illness.
Two doctors must sign off on the report. One doctor must be a specialist in the relevant condition.
Super funds have the final say on the release of the money.
‘A stress-free, streamlined process’
Applying for early release is free, however a range of companies have started paid services to help consumers complete the paperwork and put them in touch with medical specialists.
SuperCare describes itself as the first company to offer this service in Australia.
Its website says the company aims to “remove the hassle and strain involved in making an application to the Department of Human Services, replacing it with a stress-free, streamlined process”.
It advertises on IVF clinic websites and on some plastic surgery websites.
SuperCare has just helped Melbourne woman Paige Smith apply for early release super under the mental health provision of the superannuation legislation.
In order to access super for IVF, you have to prove to DHS that you are suffering a mental illness as result of your infertility.
Ms Smith said SuperCare was able to speed up the process by putting her in touch with a psychiatrist who provided a diagnosis after a 30-minute telephone consultation.
“He sort of guided me through what we’d need to talk about and kind of prompted me to answer the questions that he would need to answer in order to write the letter that I’d need to access my super,” she said.
However, Ms Smith said she did not believe the process was designed to automatically give her a favourable diagnosis.
“I don’t think that he would write a letter if someone sat on the other end of the phone and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going be OK if I don’t get this funding.’
“I can see how people would think that it’s questionable, but I found him to be professional.”
SuperCare and Ms Smith’s psychiatrist declined 7.30‘s request for interviews.
‘This is predatory behaviour’
Erin Turner, campaigns manager at the consumer group Choice, said early release companies offer a service that most people can either complete themselves, or with the help of a free financial counsellor.
“Any company that charges someone for early access to superannuation, completing a form that’s otherwise free to do for the Department of Human Services, they’re targeting people in really tough situations,” she said.
“This is predatory behaviour.”
Ms Turner also urged consumers to think about the long-term consequence of raiding their super early.
“This means that they have less money to support themselves and their family when they’re older but in more extreme cases it leads to things like women being more at risk of homelessness or just needing more support when they’re older,” she said.
“So particularly for women, if you’re looking at withdrawing your superannuation early, look at the impact that will have on your whole life.”