Today in Senate Estimates, it became clear the Turnbull Government has been asleep at the wheel about which Australians can access the Medical Alarm Subsidy Scheme under the rollout of their second-rate NBN. 

The copper-based technology being relied on by the Turnbull Government cannot support landline phone services during a power outage.  This means that service continuity for medical alarms has become compromised under Malcolm Turnbull’s Fibre to the Node NBN.

This presents a risk for many vulnerable, usually elderly, Australians who rely on medical alarms for their personal wellbeing and safety.

There are basically two forms of medical alarms:

  • Monitored alarms: when activated, these dial an operator in a 24/7 monitoring facility. Either family, a carer or 000 is alerted; or
  • Non-monitored alarms: these do not have a 24/7 monitoring facility, but usually dial out to family or a carer, or can be programmed to dial 000 when activated.

Non-monitored alarms are the substantially cheaper option for many consumers, as they do not attract an ongoing monthly fee for service.

We understand the subsidy scheme will support the purchase of medical alarm equipment which can use a mobile network when the personal alarm is activated. Labor welcomes the establishment of this scheme for users of monitored alarms.

However, NBN Co has determined that users of non-monitored alarms will not have access to that subsidy scheme.

Judging from his answers in Senate Estimates today, the Minister for Communications does not appear anxious to intervene in this decision to exclude non-monitored alarms from the subsidy scheme.

Labor is very concerned that the exclusion of non-monitored alarms will have a disproportionate impact on Australians on low incomes who desire peace of mind with a personal alarm, but cannot afford the more expensive monitored option.

Today’s revelations highlight the vacuum of accountability on this vital issue. The Turnbull Government needs to step up and take ownership of this policy and make a decision that is in the best interests of all Australians who are vulnerable or in poor health.

In the absence of any leadership by the Minister for Communications on this issue, I have today personally written to the Chief Executive Officer of NBN Co calling on him to urgently reconsider its decision and expand scope of the subsidy scheme to users of non-monitored as well as monitored alarms.

The Minister for Communications still has many questions to answer on this issue:

  • Why has he played no role in the design of this subsidy scheme?
  • Why has the Turnbull Government outsourced social policy decisions which impact on the welfare of the community to an engineering company?
  • What public consultation process was undertaken to arrive at this decision?

Labor believes all Australians have the right to enjoy the peace of mind that can be provided by personal alarms, and that access to a backup option in the event of a power outage should not be determined by your income.