Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland civil servants 'visibly moved' hearing terminally-ill patients facing benefits barrier

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon

By Michael Sheils McNamee

Department for Communities officials were "visibly moved" upon hearing the plight of terminally-ill patients facing unnecessary delays in accessing benefits, it has been said in a letter to one of Northern Ireland's most senior civil servants.

Writing to the head of the Department for Communities Leo O'Reilly, deputy leader of the SDLP Nichola Mallon was calling for change to rules around eligibility for fast-tracking when applying for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

Claimants presently are required to have a diagnosis of less than six months to live to be eligible for processing under special rules.

Under the special rules claims are expected to be cleared within two weeks, while processing through the normal system can take more than three months.

Difficulties exist for terminally-ill patients with non-cancerous conditions which are less frequently given an end-of-life diagnosis, such as dementia.

Writing to Mr O'Reilly, Mrs Mallon says: "I know how compassionate the officials working in this area are. They attended a recent meeting I facilitated with those affected by this issue.

"They were visibly moved when they heard the testimonies of people with terminal illnesses who fall outside the six-month rule and have gone through the current process."

Mrs Mallon went on to ask Mr O'Reilly to reconsider his decision not to review current legislation, something he has said the Department is unable to do due to the absence of a minister.

Last month a letter published in the Belfast Telegraph signed by high-profile names from Northern Ireland's medical and charity sectors called for the time-bound estimation of life expectancy to be abolished as a requirement for eligibility under special rules.

The letter called for action to be taken to bring Northern Ireland's legislation into line with Scotland's - which recently took action to abolish the time-bound estimation requirement.

The call for departmental action comes alongside the first reading of a private members' bill calling a change to eligibility rules before the House of Commons earlier this week.

The Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill would see rules changed nationwide, and is due for its second hearing in November.

Craig Harrison, Policy and Public Affairs Officer for Marie Curie Northern Ireland, said: "Under the current system, terminally-ill people in Northern Ireland are being denied the compassion and dignity they deserve.

"With no sitting Assembly in Stormont, we’re pleased to see this important issue on the Westminster agenda. We look forward to working further with our local MPs on this vital issue.”

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