Six-month limit for terminally ill benefits claimants 'unfair'
People with terminal illnesses could face agonising waits for payments, a major charity has warned.
Marie Curie's head of policy and public affairs Joan McEwan told the Belfast Telegraph that as legislation currently stands, it may "exclude many legitimate claimants from applying under the special rules".
These include a condition requiring a diagnosis that the applicant has no more than six months to live.
While claimants under the special rules can expect to have their claims cleared within two weeks, other claims take an average of more than three months.
"People may be expected to live for longer but because of a sudden decline in their condition, die within six months," said Ms McEwan.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said patients and charities she had spoken to felt the current six-month limit "was unfair given the difficulties even medical experts have in providing an accurate end of life prognosis".
"Recognising the complexities of accurately predicting end of life, steps are being taken in Scotland to extend the definition of terminal illness beyond six months to two years," she said. "The last thing a person with a terminal illness needs is the added stress of going through the whole intrusive PIP (Personal Independence Payment) assessment process and be left waiting much longer to access their entitlement."
Mrs Mallon said she had contacted the Department for Communities about reviewing the current situation.
Ms McEwan said the current rules affect patients with non-cancerous terminal conditions the most.
Information obtained by the charity following a freedom of information request found that of the 550 local PIP claims awarded under the special rules for terminal illness at August 31, 2017, more than 90% were awarded to cancer patients, when the disease accounts for less than a third of deaths in Northern Ireland.
"This suggests that a large number of people with other terminal illnesses are not accessing PIP under the special rules. Not only is this unfair but it also denies people the best quality of life in the time they have left because they will have to undergo intrusive face-to-face assessments and wait much longer," said Ms McEwan.
The Department for Communities said current social security law in Northern Ireland is kept in parity with rules across Great Britain, unless a minister or the Assembly directs otherwise.
"This current definition of terminal illness was first introduced into Attendance Allowance and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) in the 1990s," a spokesperson said.