Thursday, December 29, 2011

Solar tariff scheme blows out by $46 million

Now it's Western Australia's turn

WA's solar power tariff feed-in scheme has now blown out from $114 million to $180 million - $46 millon of which will be paid by the state government. Photo: Glenn Hunt

The state government's solar panel rebate scheme has blown out by at least $46 million, after a cap imposed on the program in response to its popularity was breached.

The feed-in tariff scheme was introduced in 2009, and offered new households who fed solar-produced power back into the grid a rebate of 40 cents per kilowatt hour.

More than 76,000 households signed up to the scheme, but its popularity prompted the Barnett Government to impose a cap of 150MW earlier this year and to halve the rate to 20 cents.

The scheme was originally estimated to cost $28.2 million, before being revised to $114 million.

But yesterday's mid-year budget forecasts revealed the estimate had blown out to $180 million, after too many applications were processed and the cap was breached by 15MW. Synergy will pay $20 million of the overrun, while the state government will pay $46 million.

Treasurer Christian Porter has ordered an audit into the scheme, which will analyse all the applications received between May 21, when the cap was announced, and June 30, when it was imposed.

Mr Porter said the audit would find out if any applications were incorrectly approved, which could see the cost blowout reduced.

"The suspicion that we have in Treasury is that there are applications that said they met the requirements, but didn't," he said. "Or alternatively, the Office of Energy or Synergy made an error."

"There's been a cost overrun, there clearly has been... but the money is not wasted, the money has been spent delivering clean electricity and incentivising the product of photovoltaics.

"There weren't appropriate procedures put in place to know which bundle of applications, or which single application, represented the breaching of the cap."

Shadow Energy Minister Kate Doust said the feed-in tariff scheme had been completely mismanaged. "This scheme has been poorly regulated with poor safety records and now there have been huge cost blowouts – it has been one stuff up after another from this minister," she said. "With an extra $46 million needed over the next three years for this scheme, the (Energy Minister Peter Collier's) mismanagement and hands-off approach will ultimately cost our state for a decade."

But Mr Porter said the overrun was closer to $14 million, as the initial forecast from the Office of Energy was inaccurate and the government had always been prepared to pay $165.3 million for the project.


Bungling medical watchdog

THE powerful commonwealth agency tasked with investigating medical rorts needs to be completely rebuilt, having bungled at least 71 cases, breached patient privacy and failed to comply with various financial and legislative controls.

The recommendation is in a government-commissioned review that has found problems so entrenched it calls for the independent statutory authority to be partly subsumed by the Health Department and put on a new financial footing.

That could mean doctors or their professional bodies for the first time being asked to pay a levy to fund the Professional Services Review potentially bringing the new Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, into conflict with the doctors lobby.

The PSR was established in 1994 to help ensure patient safety and doctors' proper use of funds under the Medicare Benefits Schedule and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. But as the agency has grown it has become bogged down with investigations and struggled to remain accountable, with a growing list of internal problems detracting from its role.

While a parliamentary inquiry recently recommended a series of minor reforms, and the PSR has been negotiating others with the Australian Medical Association, a draft of the government-commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers review, obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws, recommends sweeping changes.

The review reveals the PSR is currently dealing with a number of "high-risk" issues, including

its legislative non-compliance, information security failures, staffing problems and a "high number of instances of financial framework non-compliance, particularly in relation to the expenditure of public money" and credit cards used without proper authorisation.

"The extent of the challenges identified in this review indicate that the current operating model needs to be redesigned to facilitate the future delivery of PSR scheme functions and enable sustainable, efficient and effective delivery," the draft report warns. "Changes are required to both the structure of PSR and oversight arrangements."

Last month, the Privacy Commissioner found the PSR had illegally merged MBS and PBS data, requiring changes to its computer systems, while allegations of documents being left unsecured finally prompted the PSR to install lockable cabinets.

The PSR was almost crippled by a decision of the Full Bench of the Federal Court in July, which undermined 71 completed cases and left a cloud over others. The court found the PSR, through previous health ministers Tony Abbott and Nicola Roxon, had failed to consult the AMA on appointments to its investigative committees, as required under legislation. If the decision stands the commonwealth will in February seek leave to appeal to the High Court. 44 doctors who were suspended from Medicare and the PBS, and stripped of $3.3 million in claims, will have a legal right to sue for damages.

The PSR has on average recouped about $2.3m in taxpayer funds each year and provided a much greater deterrent to inappropriate practice. It has a current budget of $6.7m less than previous years due to the impact of the Federal Court decision and about 30 staff.

The draft report highlights how the PSR workforce has doubled in five years and become more senior, which "may be inefficient", while the number and length of investigations has also drained its finances.

It recommends the PSR be partly subsumed by the Health Department, which would take over corporate support and provide further oversight.

It also suggests the government bring the PSR into line with public-sector guidelines on cost-recovery, either through a direct levy on all members of the professions it covers about $87 a year for each of 94,000 practitioners, based on the PSR's 2010-11 funding levels or a direct levy on professional bodies.

"This (direct levy) approach would provide an incentive for professional bodies to increase their activities in actively discouraging levels of inappropriate practice," the draft report states.

A spokeswoman for the department said the review would be completed early next year, when the final recommendations would be considered and discussed with stakeholders, including the AMA.

"The government is aware of the problems identified by the report and has already taken action to address these," the spokeswoman said, noting the appointment of William Coote as PSR director last month. "It is important to acknowledge the work that the PSR has already done over the last year to improve its operations, and make sure that they are effective and transparent."

The draft report, dated December 19, found it was too early to judge the success of those reforms and a larger overhaul was needed.

The PSR has sought to prevent a repeat of the issues that led to the Federal Court of Australia decision and is currently recruiting a new panel of members who can form investigative committees, along with the deputy directors who can head them.


An informed comment on illegal immigration into Australia

I'd just like to point out, having just written my Masters thesis on this very topic, that while the majority of Australia's asylum seekers arrive by plane, this majority is much slimmer than imagined. Last year the spread was something like 46% boat and 54% air and the last few years have all been like this - I can provide some sources on this if you like.

Of those who arrive by plane, only a small percentage are actually illegal, in that they have no permission to enter - and those that are are removed from the country via the next available flight to their point of origin. The majority of our ASYLUM SEEKERS who DO enter by plane do so on tourist or short term working holiday visas and then apply for asylum, which it is perfectly legal to do.

To emphasise, boat arrivals are placed in detention NOT because they are seeking asylum. Seeking asylum in Australia is perfectly legal, they are in detention because they arrive without permission (unlike plane arrivals who largely show up with a valid visa of some kind). While I don't defend the morality of mandatory detention, this is an important distinction.

Boat arrivals fill our detention centres because they are the largest group of people who enter Australia illegally and are then detained (not sent home immediately).


Negligent public hospital: Bleeding pregnant woman sent home on train, loses baby

A WOMAN has lost her baby after being sent home from a Melbourne hospital bleeding and forced to catch public transport. Rebecca Dee suffered a miscarriage early yesterday, hours after returning to her home in Mordialloc, Victoria.

Partner Herbert Bouvard said: "I don't understand why they sent her home bleeding, and on public transport ... the way we were treated was absolutely disgusting. "Obviously there was something wrong. How do you send someone home like that?"

The ordeal began when Ms Dee, seven weeks' pregnant, began bleeding on Tuesday morning, Mr Bouvard said. After arriving at Monash Medical Centre's emergency department by ambulance, she waited two hours to see a doctor and three hours for an ultrasound, he said. Ms Dee was told the baby's heart was beating, and it was fine, and she should go home, he said.

The couple had no money for a taxi and no one available to pick them up, so asked if a cab could be provided, given Ms Dee's condition, but were refused one. Still bleeding, she undertook her 90-minute trip - walking to the station, catching a train to Caulfield, changing there for another one to Mordialloc, and then walking home.

They arrived home soon before 9pm on Tuesday, and yesterday morning, bleeding heavily, the couple called another ambulance. They were again taken to Monash Medical Centre where doctors told Ms Dee she had lost her baby.

But a Southern Health spokeswoman said the patient's bleeding fell below the threshold for further intervention and she was discharged with clear instructions to return should symptoms worsen.

She did not fall within the criteria for a free taxi voucher, but had been given a free public transport ticket, she said.

Ms Dee was also admitted within the appropriate time frames, with records showing treatment began within half an hour of her arrival, she said. "One in three women with bleeding in early pregnancy will go on to have a miscarriage," she said. [Well, why was she not admitted on her first visit?]


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