Melbourne man known as John attempted suicide when he learnt of two-month wait for pension claim, advocate says
From The Guardian –
“A Melbourne man died from bowel cancer while waiting for his disability support pension claim to be approved in what his advocate called “one of the worst cases” she has seen.
The man, known as John to protect his privacy, was left to survive on Newstart as he battled stage 3 bowel cancer and had earlier attempted suicide after learning of a two-month wait on his pension claim, according to Katrina Newman, who took up his case in February.
Newman, of DRC Advocacy, told Guardian Australia that John had died in hospital on 3 April with his claim still pending, 54 days after he first lodged the application with Centrelink.
The agency went on to approve his claim posthumously and confirmed it would pay his estate $4,207.33 in backpay, Newman said.
But she was concerned that his estate now owed a debt to the commonwealth. While she had twice notified Centrelink of John’s death, Newman said she later received a letter confirming an additional $1,063.40 fortnightly payment and had been informed by a Centrelink social worker a debt would be owed.
“It’s one of the worst cases I’ve seen,” Newman, a specialist in disability pension claims, told Guardian Australia.
Alerted to John’s case by Guardian Australia, the Department of Human Services apologised and promised to investigate to avoid a repeat incident. A spokesman also insisted “no debt was raised”.
It is the latest in a series of recent cases where cancer patients have been blocked from gaining access to the disability support pension.
Reports emerged last month that Adelaide teenager taking cancer medication reportedly had her claim denied, while a Victorian woman undergoing chemotherapy was also knocked back for the pension. And in March, a New South Wales woman with stage-four colon cancer also had a claim denied.
When John, 61, sought DRC’s help in February, he believed he had six months to live, Newman said. He had left his job to undergo treatment, had no income and was behind on his rent payments.
After he was discharged from hospital with a stoma in late January, he spent two weeks working on his disability pension application while he recovered in bed.
“He was lucky to have a sympathetic landlady because he could have ended up homeless,” Newman said. “He was so concerned he asked for my assistance in applying to access some of his superannuation. He told me he worked on the application a little each day until it was complete. The current application is 33 pages in length.”
After John was informed he might need to wait two months for his pension application to be processed, he attempted suicide, Newman said. “He told me one of the reasons was that he had learned it was going to take so long,” she said.
Faced with a lengthy wait for the pension, he successfully applied for Newstart, about $150 a week less than disability payments.
But Newman said John’s application should have been processed as a “manifest grant”. Under social security law, the Department of Human Services can bypass the full assessment process when a claimant is suffering from a terminal illness.
By April, John’s condition had deteriorated markedly. He entered a “vegetative state” on 1 April and died two days later.
Julian Hill, the Labor MP for Bruce, also advocated on behalf of John, who lived in his electorate. Hill described the case as “disgraceful” and blamed the caps on public service staffing levels and Centrelink outsourcing.
“[John] literally died still waiting for his [disability support pension] to be processed, having tried to commit suicide because he was so distressed by Centrelink’s delay,” he told Guardian Australia.
The Department of Human Services’ spokesman, Hank Jongen, said the department was “deeply sorry for this breakdown in service” and would contact the family to “apologise and ensure they are aware no debt was raised”.
“We also extend our condolences to the family for their loss, and apologise for adding to their distress,” he said. “We’ll be investigating this case to establish what went wrong and how we can ensure it doesn’t happen to others.”
Labor has sought to make Centrelink an election issue by promising to hire 1,200 new staff and end outsourcing through labour hire contracts.
Access to the disability support pension has been tightened significantly after successive policy changes by Coalition and Labor governments. Guardian Australia revealed last month that the number of sick or disabled people on Newstart, rather than the DSP, has hit a record high at 200,000.
While the average waiting time for a disability support pension claim is 34 days, according to the department, it has been criticised for excluding claims longer than 84 days from these figures.
The Coalition did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at http://www.befrienders.org“