The rule causing Aussies to suffer
PATIENTS desperate to fix crippling back pain with life-changing surgery overseas are being told they can't access their super early while people having cosmetic procedures can.
But at least two Aussie men are struggling to get their applications approved to travel to Germany for specialised spine surgery.
Nowra man Simon Harris got so fed up with the amount of paperwork and red tape to access his money early he has instead up going through worker's compensation.
Mr Harris has been forced to have spinal fusion surgery in Australia next week, a procedure he was trying to avoid because German techniques have been lauded as better.
Both men have been patients with SkyGen, an Australian-based medical travel company specialising in spine and orthopaedic conditions that coordinates surgery in trusted hospitals in Germany or Thailand.
One of their previous patients was so desperate for the German surgery he sold his house to raise the $75,000 needed.
Hunter resident Jason Woodger didn't have luck with the compo system and despite being on a long public waiting list, was also worried special fusion surgery here would only be a partial solution.
Department of Human Services spokesman Hank Jongen said while it was possible to approve the release of superannuation funds for medical treatment overseas, decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, and dependent on the facts of the individual case and the evidence provided.
Mr Harris, who has been on 12 Panadeine Forte a day for six months, said he had to get an Australian specialist to say the procedure was not available here.
While it was difficult to quickly get an appointment with a private specialist anyway, the 37-year-old also questioned what surgeon would purposely refuse business.
"They needed to know why I had to go over to Germany, even though we should have a right to pick our own doctor," he said.
"Even the German doctors filling out the paperwork wasn't good enough.
"You can use it on cosmetic procedures but they make it so hard for people in paralysing pain every day, for something that's going to improve their lifestyle or give them back their lifestyle.
"It's discrimination at its highest level."
Western Australia grandfather Scott McCloy has degenerative disk disease and said he was still investigating options and was waiting to see a surgeon in August.
"It's been a nightmare," he said. "For things like this you need it, and you have to have it."
Of the 21,782 early super release applications received last financial year, 15,132 were approved in part or full.
Those numbers have both been rising since 2011.
People can access the money on compassionate grounds in very limited circumstances for medical expenses including medical transport, modifications to a home or vehicle to accommodate a severe disability, funeral expenses, palliative care, and to prevent the sale of a person's home.
Legislation requires that applications are supported by evidence from two registered medical practitioners - at least one of them a specialist - certifying the treatment is necessary and not readily available through the public health system.
SkyGen's Jake Lemon said this was where patients became stuck and the "dinosaur protocols" must stop.
"Many patients feel intimidated or scared to even go back and even discuss this with their local specialist, for fear of being belittled for questioning their surgical recommendation," he said.
"There is an absolute conflict of interest in this process for patients to access their superannuation for life-changing surgery, and the patients are the ones left stuck in the system and in pain.
"We have Australian patients who have been waiting in pain, unable to work or enjoy family life … being denied access to their savings, and forced to continue to wait in pain or go back on the public waiting list, to accept whatever surgery is on offer at the nearest public hospital."
Patients suffering from spine damage in their lower back can experience symptoms of chronic local pain, referred nerve pain called sciatica, loss of sensation and movement in their legs and issues with controlling bodily functions.
A spine fusion involves treating spine pain and instability by fusing two or more vertebrae together, usually using a cage, rods and screws.
One of the main motion-preserving surgeries patients travel to Germany for is artificial disc Replacement (ADR), where degenerate and dysfunctional discs in the neck and lower back are removed and replaced with artificial implants to perform the same movement and function as a healthy disc.
The surgery was pioneered in Germany some 40 years ago and doctors say compared with spinal fusion, the benefit to the patient is a 50 per cent reduced recovery time, little to no restriction on future lifestyle activities, and preservation of full healthy movement in their spine.
Another type of motion-preserving surgery available in Germany is total facet joint replacement, a procedure not yet available in Australia.
Have you tried to access your super early? What kind if experience have you had? Email firstname.lastname@example.org