Pensioners stuck in Australia face the prospect of a $16,000 bill from the Ministry of Social Development.
"We have stopped your payments and you will need to pay back the money you owe," the Government ministry told the pensioners who have been stuck abroad for nearly a year.
The December 6 letter from the Ministry of Social Development to the Bay of Plenty's Maureen and Rob Wardle, in their 80s, hit like a bombshell.
"Our New Zealand super was stopped on November 9," a worried Maureen Wardle told the Herald today, explaining the couple's financial and emotional distress.
But the bigger blow was the ministry's pre-Christmas demand that the Wardles repay all the money they received from New Zealand while they were in Australia.
Because the Wardles left New Zealand last April, they have exceeded the maximum 26 weeks allowed for Kiwi pensioners to be away yet continued to receive their super.
Rob Wardle now owes $7676.33 and Maureen Wardle $8533.17, bringing the total to $16,209.50.
And the ministry wants its money back.
For the last three months, the couple has received no income from MSD and no support is provided by the Australian Government to help people trapped in this twilight zone-like territory.
"A further shock was getting letters saying we owe $16,209.50," Maureen Wardle told the Herald today.
"As you can imagine, all this has been a huge worry for us. We are in our 80s and not computer savvy. We just want to get home to go into Work and Income to talk to someone in person," she said.
MSD's December 6 letter was from an international customer service officer based in Kordia House, Willis St, Wellington. That said: "We always want to make sure we get it right for people so we recently reviewed your payments after we found you'd left the country on 25/04/21 on flight number NZ149.
"Because you received New Zealand superannuation, we can continue to pay you for the first 26 weeks you're overseas as long as you return within 30 weeks. If you don't return within the 30 weeks, we will have to stop your New Zealand superannuation from the day after you left the country.
"We wrote to you about this on 27/10/21 and I'm getting back in touch to let you know we paid you too much. You need to pay some money back. From 26/04/21 to 09/11/21, unfortunately, you received money from us you didn't qualify for because you were overseas," MSD said.
Maureen Wardle was over-paid $8533.17 and Rob Wardle by $7676.33.
Ways they could now repay were listed as being via the internet or telephone banking.
But the couple say they don't have the money because it was needed just to survive all these months trapped in Australia.
Not only that, but she is worried about how they will continue to afford to live with New Zealand borders shut and them unable to return to New Zealand.
Opposition revenue spokesman Andrew Bayly has expressed deep concern about the couple. He says situations like theirs should never have been able to happen.
Bayly has been in touch with other couples like the Wardles. He has been dealing with a number of Kiwi pensioners trapped in Australia and one in Morocco.
"The issue of superannuitants who are stuck overseas and have been unable to get a spot in MIQ is widespread. In fact, I would imagine virtually all electorate MPs have been approached by superannuants caught in this difficult situation," Bayly said today.
Given many seniors rely on their super to pay for their living costs, it is appalling that there is such a merciless approach that many superannuitants face the prospect of having their super cut off or, in some cases, having to refund their super, he said.
"It is the Government's poor management of MIQ that has not allowed them to return to New Zealand within the six-month time frame. It is essential that this situation be clarified and made clear to those superannuants who have made genuine attempts to return to New Zealand within the prescribed timeframe. It is simply just unfair," Bayly said.
Opposition social development and employment spokesperson Louise Upston said she had tried to help Kiwis trapped overseas and the Wardles' situation was appalling.
"It's absolutely outrageous," she said.
"Through no fault of their own, they are unable to return to New Zealand. There will be a whole lot more people like them a swell. They shouldn't be penalised like this where there is a lack of portability," Upston said.
She tried to head off issues by proposing a law amendment last year but she said the Government had not accepted the supplementary order paper.
Maureen Wardle said the couple had travelled to Australia last April so that Rob Wardle could have surgery there. It was while he was recovering that borders were shut, which she says they did not expect.
"We go to Australia in the winter months when New Zealand is cold and wet. We go to the Sunshine Coast an hour north of Brisbane," she said.
They have a small two-bedroom villa there.
Rob Wardle's surgery was done in Australia last year. Asked why they didn't return in July when Kiwis across the Tasman were told to board flights, Maureen Wardle said illness prevented that option.
"Unfortunately my husband has an aortic aneurysm which has caused multiple surgeries. He had another endoleak and went into hospital again on July 21 for transcatheter therapy for embolisation with angiography.
"Our New Zealand pension is our main source of income as the interest rates are so low on investments so we have become dependent on it you can imagine our distress when it was cut off for no fault of our own. We have found it physically impossible to get back to New Zealand in the time frames due to Covid," she said.
Their New Zealand residence is at Papamoa Beach.
"We have two cars in the garage back there, plus a house full of furniture and food in the fridge and freezer, all going to pot while we are stuck in Australia. We pay council rates, have a guy mowing the grass fortnightly and pay insurances," she said.
"Our problems started back in February 2020 when we went back to Australia earlier than usual as my husband needed surgery. We had every intention of returning to New Zealand when he was over it but Covid hit," she said.
"We applied for an exemption to hotel quarantine due to my husband's health problems but were turned down.
"Then there was a bubble and we were able to fly to New Zealand in April 2021 so we got over for a week and checked our house out," she said.
They then flew back to Queensland.
"My husband had more surgery that week and by the time he had recovered the borders were all shut again. We are New Zealand citizens and just want to get home. My husband's health has deteriorated during Covid and last year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease which is just an extra worry for us to deal with," she said.
Yesterday, the Herald highlighted a similar plight of another couple, British man Keith and his Kiwi wife Michele Gorrett.
The Hobsonville couple left last winter to see family and friends, when borders were open but since then have been unable to return and are sleeping on a friend's couch.
George van Ooyen, the ministry's client service support group general manager, said his entity appreciated the difficult circumstances many superannuitants were facing.
Applicants were considered individually, he said.
"We are considering applications on a case-by-case basis for superannuation and veteran's pension payments to continue beyond the 26-week temporary absence period, under portability provisions*.
"This is available to people whose absence from New Zealand is solely linked to the travel bubble closure, and it will continue as long as it is needed.
Non-qualified partners of super and veteran pensions, who had been absent for longer than 30 weeks due to circumstances they couldn't have reasonably foreseen, can contact the ministry about receiving the first 26 weeks of payments without having to make a repayment, van Ooyen said.
The assessment of this will take into consideration their circumstances, those of their qualifying partner, and whether the non-qualifying person's situation is beyond their control.
"If they cannot be reinstated to their partner's pension, the non-qualifying partner may apply for a main benefit in their own right. We encourage New Zealanders overseas to contact us and discuss how we may be able to help within the parameters of discretion legislation allows us," he said.
• A toll-free ministry number is available from Australia. It is 1800 150 479