Cancer patients need help in struggle with welfare benefits obligations

Case workers are needed to help cancer patients who are too sick to jump through the hoops to claim welfare benefits, according to the Cancer Council Australia.

Media attention has highlighted the case of a Victorian man hospitalised with stage 3 colorectal cancer who was told to continue applying for 20 jobs a month and report to Centrelink every fortnight to meet his Newstart Allowance requirements.

The plight of 54-year-old Robert Laughlin made national headlines after his sister took to social media to attack Centrelink for refusing his application for a disability benefit on the grounds that his condition was not ‘permanent’.

The father-of-two was reported to have been hospitalised for almost seven weeks and was being fed through a gastrostomy tube when his Newstart payments were cut off due to not completing the jobseeking requirements. Following the media outcry the Department of Human Services reviewed his case and payments were reinstated. The Department commented that cancer patients may be able to claim temporary exemptions from mutual obligations on medical grounds.

Cancer Council Australia CEO Professor Sanchia Aranda tells the limbic that cases such as this are rare but highlight the need to simplify the benefits system, given that up to 40% of cancer patients are likely to seek one of several types of welfare payment available.

She notes there are three categories of welfare benefit available to people with cancer, each handled by a different arm within Centrelink, and moving between them is a complex and time-intensive process involving a new application each time.

“If you are diagnosed with cancer and are anticipating a short period of not being able to work you will go onto a sickness benefit, but if that cancer spreads and you are diagnosed as being terminally ill or permanently incapacitated you have to start a whole new process to move on to disability pension,” she says.

“For patients, sometimes it just exhausts them, sometimes they just give up because they can’t negotiate the system because they are just not well enough. The downstream effect is people end up going into housing stress, or can’t pay their bills.

“I think people who are diagnosed with an incurable or ongoing illness that will affect their capacity to work need a case manager – someone who actually helps them negotiate that system.”

Professor Aranda notes the gap in cancer survival rates between Australia’s poorest and richest people is growing, with the most deprived 30% more likely to die from cancer than those in the highest socioeconomic category, according to a 2017 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

“That difference in cancer outcomes is widening – we suspect that people who are poor can’t afford the time off work or out of pocket costs associated with some of the treatments,” Professor Aranda says.

“Cancer, even in a country like Australia, can cause significant financial stress for our most vulnerable,” she adds.

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