Jane Wrightson has released the findings of an investigation into pensioners' experiences with MSD during New Zealand's border closures from 2020 to 2022.
It found MSD was perceived as being "judgemental or dismissive", people felt the agency had pre-determined decisions and had not communicated sufficiently with clients or the Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) process.
Between 1 April 2020 and 31 December 2021, some 5448 NZ Super clients had a suspension or cancellation of their superannuation payments because they left the country.
Superannuitants' payments are stopped when they are outside the country for 26 weeks, unless given an exemption by MSD's chief executive.
At 30 weeks, people received a demand to repay their pension for the 26 missing weeks, which equated to about $8000 per person.
But in 2021 MSD told Stuff: "Closure of the travel bubble with Australia, other flight limitations due to Covid and difficulty securing a spot in MIQ etc. were all reasonably foreseeable before departure for anyone who left NZ within the past 30 weeks."
Most accounts in the Retirement Commission's report showed people left to care for or support family.
"My husband and I travelled to Brisbane, Australia, in late April 2021, to support our daughter and grandson who have been going through an extremely traumatic, domestic violence based, family court case," one person detailed in the report.
"I had been waiting months for flights to resume to Australia as I had an urgent family matter I had to attend to. I wasn't sure how long this would take but was very confident that under normal circumstances I would be back home in NZ well within 26 weeks," another said.
Wrightson said it was impossible to predict that the borders would have been closed for as long as they were during the pandemic.
"Most pensioners experienced significant financial hardship and stress as they navigated their return through a crowded online MIQ system and dealing with MSD," she said.
Wrightson was contacted by more than 50 people who got caught off-shore to advocate on their behalf.
"Some early concessions were made for superannuitants who had travelled during the trans-Tasman bubble, after intervention by myself and others. But those who fell outside of this, or were further afield, had to grapple with an inflexible and often unsympathetic appeals process to challenge repayment demands," she said.
A key finding was MSD being perceived as "inflexible, judgemental, dismissive, out-dated or slow-moving, and lacking in 'humanity'."
"All I wanted was to be spoken to nicely and professionally. They were all abrupt in their emails. And the whole process of appealing seemed to be so complicated. There should have been a simple system," one person told the investigation.
"I felt like I was being treated as a criminal. Like they'd caught me out. I explained to them why I was there, but they said you should have known before I left. I wasn't going on holiday! I can prove it, that [my Spanish partner] was in hospital. She couldn't do a thing for herself," another said.
In some cases, the hardship continued even once pensioners had returned to the country.
"They wouldn't restart my pension once I returned in April. They told me 'we won't start your pension until the Benefits Review Committee (BRC) decision is released'. Of course, I complained and they decided to restart it but they reduced it by $20 a fortnight. I'm not sure why," a pensioner said.
"The MSD decisions appear to have been based on a legal view taken early on which adopted an unduly narrow interpretation of the relevant provision. This was then rigidly applied by MSD staff (for example, people referred to being told 'the law is the law') and the BRC creating a strong impression of predetermination amongst those we interviewed," Wrightson said.
According to MSD figures from December 2021, 2859 of the 5448 that had their NZ Super stopped were yet to get it reinstated.
The commissioner noted MSD had already made some changes, but "there are further opportunities for improvement, both legislative and operational".
Her recommendations were:
• Setting up a process for independent review and testing of legal positions in novel circumstances or where decisions will have significant adverse impacts
• Allowing the BRC to obtain separate legal advice on any contentious issue involving statutory interpretation, rather than simply adopting the MSD legal position
• MSD adopting a policy of constructively engaging with alternative legal positions, such as the legal opinion commissioned by the Retirement Commissioner and provided to MSD