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ABC News
ABC News
consumer affairs reporter Amy Bainbridge, the Specialist Reporting Team's Loretta Florance and Kirstie Wellauer

Funeral insurer Youpla 'grew and grew' off welfare payments, then collapsed

Beverley Roberts stuck with ACBF over the years, because she saw them pay out when a number of relatives died. (ABC News: Olivia Ralph)

Euahlayi woman Beverley Roberts is one of thousands of First Nations Australians who for years put money aside to pay for their own funerals.

"I lost my father, brother, sister and nephew all within a 12-month period, and we struggled to bury them," Ms Roberts said.

"That's why I was so happy when they came along and said that they were an Aboriginal funeral fund."

Ms Roberts said she was the first person in Dubbo to sign up to funeral insurer the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF), in the mid-1990s. 

For years, Beverley Roberts gave funeral insurer ACBF permission to deduct money from her Centrelink payments.  (Supplied: Judith Scolari-Gibson)

But rather than transferring the money from her savings account to pay her premiums, the ACBF salesperson gave her the option to take the amount directly from her Centrelink payments.

"When they were going around all of our houses just signing us up, they had the Centrelink forms for them to take direct debit out of our Centrelink pay," Ms Roberts said. 

She estimates she paid more than $60,000 for policies for herself and her family.

"I just thought that it was just a great thing for Aboriginal people, as we struggle all the time to bury our loved ones."

From 2001 to 2017, ACBF was the only funeral fund to use the government-run system Centrepay to debit millions of dollars from Centrelink payments.

Now, ACBF  — also known as Youpla — has collapsed, leaving thousands of customers like Ms Roberts without funeral cover.

Aaron Davis from the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) said ACBF's access to Services Australia’s Centrepay system allowed the company to take off in remote communities.

"The fact that ACBF was on the Centrepay system for so long meant that the business was able to grow and grow and grow and thrive to the point where we estimate that Indigenous people have lost over $200 million."

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission will today tell the federal court whether it intends to continue a misleading and deceptive conduct case it brought against the company in 2020, for its behaviour between 2015 and 2018.

Aaron Davis has been advocating for customers of ACBF for decades. (ABC News: Brendan Mounter)

Questions are also now being raised about how the company was able to use the Centrepay system for years, even after two reports warned about a possible lack of consumer protections. 

Advocates say it is time for the government to take responsibility for its part in the disaster.

ACBF allowed to 'thrive' on Centrepay

Ms Roberts says she paid thousands of dollars to ACBF before she discovered it was not owned or operated by Aboriginal people.

"I was the first one to sign up here in Dubbo, and then after that, [the salesman] asked me where all the other Aboriginals lived in this area, and I pointed him all in the right direction, and he signed up everybody," she said.

In 2008, ACBF paid out on her husband's funeral when he died.

Ms Roberts later signed up her grandchildren and was paying $87 a fortnight for eight ACBF policies.

She initially did not believe that the Youpla Group was in financial trouble.

"And then all of a sudden I just kept on seeing [other people] on Facebook saying 'stop payments immediately, stop payments immediately.'"

Government given warnings

Over the years there has been no shortage of warnings that perhaps the company was not an appropriate candidate for Centrepay.

Centrepay was established in the 1990s as a financial management tool, allowing welfare recipients to have essential expenses like rent and energy bills deducted from the Centrelink payments before the money hit their bank accounts.

When ACBF joined in 2001, it had recently faced court action from regulator ASIC for misleading and deceptive conduct.

In 2003, it faced another ASIC challenge, for breaking federal anti-hawking laws.

ICAN's Mr Davis first raised concerns about the company using Centrepay in 2007.

In 2013, an independent review into Centrepay warned the government about the risk involved in allowing a funeral insurance company to access the scheme.

"There is the possibility that the providers may go into receivership or become bankrupt, with customers subsequently receiving no benefit for the monies expended over many years," report author Anna Buduls wrote in 2013.

In the 2011/12 financial year alone, she reported that 9,500 customers made payments into a funeral benefit plan through Centrelink, amounting to $6.6 million.

A 2002 ACBF newsletter letting customers know they can now use family tax benefits to pay for cover.  (Supplied)

"Anecdotally, Indigenous customers are the main users of this deduction category, in large part due to their cultural practices focusing on a profound reverence and respect in matters relating to death and mourning," she wrote.

Ms Buduls wrote that both stakeholders and regulators had concerns that funeral fund customers did not fully understand what they were buying and would lose their contributions if they missed a single payment.

The report also noted the department’s lack of willingness to investigate when companies using Centrepay were accused of doing the wrong thing.

Six thousand missing customers

Current director of Youpla Greg Wheeldon said he saw no reason why the company should not have been able to access Centrepay.

Greg Wheeldon says he sees no reason why ACBF — now known as Youpla — shouldn't have been allowed to access Centrepay. (ABC News: Amy Bainbridge)

"I would have thought at the time, it would have been a sensible thing because it would force the policyholders to meet their monthly payments, when if they had to make voluntary payments every month, it would have been the last thing on their list to pay," he said. 

"To my knowledge, they could have cancelled the Centrepay direction at any time if they so desired but it would mean they would lose their policy, so they would have to make a decision on that."

In a newsletter sent in 2016, ACBF alerted customers they could no longer make contibributions through Centrepay. (Supplied)

The government changed the rules so the funeral provider could no longer access Centrepay in 2015, but court challenges meant it kept using the system until February 2017.

Ms Roberts switched her policy over to a direct bank transfer when that happened.

But 6,000 other policyholders could not be contacted by the company and subsequently lost their cover and all of the money they contributed.

Advocates want efforts to be made to track down those people and include them in a government-established compensation fund.

Appearing before the banking royal commission in 2018, then-CEO Bryn Jones was grilled on how the company managed to lose track of so many customers.

Rowena Orr, QC: You couldn’t find them?

Bryn Jones: No.

Ms Orr: Even though you had been deducting amounts from their Centrelink benefits?

Mr Jones: Yes.

The ABC contacted Services Australia to ask a range of detailed questions, including how much money was paid to ACBF via the Centrepay system.

Services Australia said it did not have the resources to extract the data.

It said that appropriate action had been taken against the company.

"On 1 July 2015, the Centrepay policy was changed and funeral insurance was then excluded from Centrepay," it said.

"In line with this change to Centrepay policy, the Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund was withdrawn as a Centrepay business."

The new federal government has committed to an inquiry into ACBF/Youpla, but has not yet given a timeline.

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