Monday 21st December 2015
Mac Voice, the magazine for Macmillan professionals: Winter 2015
Melvyn Norris, Macmillan Citizens Advice Team Leader in Somerset (pictured below with his team), calls for your support in referring people to your local benefits advice service.
Just one month after my twenty-second birthday, my father gently told me the cause of months of apparently inexplicable bodily malfunctions. I had experienced a ‘mild’ attack of multiple sclerosis (MS).
‘Mild?’ I thought. I was in hospital, virtually unable to walk, losing control of sight, balance and waterworks, and fatigued even by the effort of getting up in the morning. What would a bad attack do to me?
Little could I know then that, while MS would restrict my physical ability to participate in the world, it would also inspire me towards a career helping others with health problems.
Nearly forty years later, I am privileged to lead a team dedicated to helping people with cancer obtain their welfare rights.
Supporting benefit claims
It is no wonder that, among everything else they are coping with, people diagnosed with cancer may not consider financial issues at first. Unfortunately, they may only think of this once debts start to mount.
By the time we intervene, they are often struggling to pay bills and afford the extra heating which, for example, chemotherapy or weight loss may demand.
This is a situation Macmillan has sought to address by funding specialist welfare right teams throughout the UK. Ours is dedicated to help people with cancer and their families in South Somerset obtain their welfare rights.
We do so through interviews in a convenient location for the person, be it in their home, in our office, or at a hospital or hospice. We identify benefits they might be missing and help them apply, fill in forms, challenge decisions and go through tribunal hearings if necessary.
A climate of change
We also operate at a time of monumental change. Welfare reform in the UK today might be regarded as the greatest change to the welfare state since its inception some 70 years ago. In England, Scotland and Wales, Disability Living Allowance is being replaced by Personal Independence Payments.
A new all-encompassing Universal Credit is with us. These changes are also expected to be introduced in Northern Ireland. The UK government is pressing ahead with £12bn of welfare cuts. It is within this climate that we operate, but we do so knowing that billions of pounds still go unclaimed each year, typically by those who are most ill.
Letting people concentrate on getting well
Our team consists of Macmillan specialists, volunteers and the support of the Citizens Advice in which the service is grounded.
Each year we help people access £2.5m in benefits. We are proud of this, for on the one hand it permits people to concentrate on getting well instead of worrying about their bills, and on the other it increases the prosperity of the community in which the money is spent.
Another aspect of our work is to apply for Macmillan Grants to help people with unmet expenses generated by cancer. Each year we help people access £20,000 this way. A typical grant application would be to help with fuel costs or new clothing when body shape is affected. However, support comes in unexpected ways too, such as the cost of gym membership for a person who sought help to fight her way back to fitness.
One student was dealing with cancer while writing her thesis. She wanted an opportunity to convalesce and recharge her batteries. In an email she wrote:
‘Thank you so very much for suggesting me for the Macmillan one-off grant. I was absolutely delighted to receive the full funding from Macmillan for my five night convalescent break. It was such a lift just to feel some support, before even going for the break! The time away was just brilliant and totally what I needed, with time to rest and heal and get stronger with walking on the beach and swimming in the pool every day. It has done me a lot of good.’
How you can help
Our Macmillan Welfare Benefits service, like most others, takes referrals from hospitals, hospice, clients and their bereaved partners.
Yet we barely reach half of those affected. The challenge to us and similar projects is to reach everyone affected by cancer. Ultimately, we feel it is the clinical professionals at the front line who hold the key to achieving this. I therefore appeal to you and all Macmillan professionals to refer patients to your local Macmillan Welfare Benefit team or Citizens Advice. People cannot negotiate alone through the benefit maze. They should all have specialist advice.
Eight out of ten people we engage with get benefits or practical support as a result. Those who do not express satisfaction at knowing they are not missing out and that if their circumstances change, they know where to get professional support.
I am a great believer that, on a personal level, we should define ourselves in what we can do rather than what we cannot. MS has given me insight into living with a long-term illness. I feel privileged to be able to apply this to my role and to be part of a team that betters the lives of people affected by cancer.
Four in five people affected by cancer also suffer financially. And when someone is facing cancer, it’s a challenge they should not have to deal with. Our network of cancer care specialists are uniquely placed to provide support on financial issues. People can call Macmillan free on 0808 808 00 00 or visit macmillan.org.uk/financialsupport
Email Melvyn Norris, Macmillan Citizens Advice Team Leader at South Somerset Citizens Advice.