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George Downs is a Welfare Benefits Officer and provides financial support and advice to Ashgate Hospice’s patients when they need it most. He is employed by Derbyshire County Council, but part of his role sees him ensure the hospice’s patients can access the full benefits available to them.
We caught up with George to find out a bit more about what he does to support people with a palliative or end of life diagnosis.
He talks about the most rewarding parts of his role and how families are coping amidst the cost of living crisis…
So, George, what does your job typically involve?
I take referrals from all Ashgate departments and the wider health community across North Derbyshire, including referrals from all GP surgeries to ensure that Derbyshire patients and their families are accessing their full benefit entitlement.
The benefits system is complex and no two situations are the same.
There is specific legislation relating to each benefit and applicants must meet the criteria in order to qualify. My role is to check whether the patient is meeting the criteria and if they do, advise and assist with applying for that benefit. The overall aim is to take the stress of navigating the benefits system away from the patient, to allow them to focus on more personal matters.
Not every application is successful, but if I believe the patient is entitled to a benefit then I expect the benefit to be paid at the correct level and quickly and will act on the patient’s behalf until it’s sorted.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Research shows that one of the main worries for people with cancer is finances. Knowing that I can help people through difficult times, from diagnosis through to end of life and the family of the patient, can be particularly rewarding. If being in touch with someone has made that person’s day a better one, then that is all I can ask.
What are the biggest challenges you encounter?
It can be very challenging and frustrating. The job itself has its own difficulties with bad decision making by Government bodies resulting in benefits being delayed or refused. From my viewpoint I see a patient whereas for the Department of Work and Pensions it is impersonal.
Whilst appreciating that everyone has time constraints, time is money when it comes to applying for benefits and delays waiting for information can often mean the loss of several hundreds of pounds, rent not being paid or being reliant on foodbanks. This is particularly problematic if the patient is nearing the end of their life.
Another bugbear is dispelling the myth surrounding benefit claimants. Opinions about this topic are usually borne out of ignorance, so I feel it necessary to challenge people to at least give them accurate information to form an opinion.
Has your job changed over the past year amid the ongoing cost of living crisis?
The job role itself has not changed. My role is to maximise the income of the person I am advising. The cost of living crisis means that virtually everyone is feeling the pinch one way or another and every bit of additional income is helpful, so I am receiving more referrals for non-health related benefits.
In the past, some people would decline applying for a specific benefit because it is only for a few pounds and “not worth doing the paperwork for”. This is no longer the case, as the uptake has increased even when the awarded amount is relatively small.
What has been more noticeable is that there is less of a stigma attached to applying for benefits. There appears to be a greater understanding that the welfare benefits system provides support in a time of need. Whilst not everyone will qualify for benefits, people are more open to at least looking into it.
How are people feeling and what situation are Ashgate patients finding themselves in as food and fuel prices rise?
Currently, I do not think it is wrong to use words such as “fear” and “despair”. People with a cancer diagnosis are already starting at a point where they are likely to be financially worse off, through giving up employment, or being off work through sickness and going through treatment regimes, or just through the general increased costs related to having a disability. So, the current cost of living crisis is compounding the problems.
Fuel costs are through the roof and for a someone who has a 30-plus mile round trip to have treatment for 20 days in a row, the travel costs can be a major hurdle in their ability to attend hospital for their treatment. Not everyone can get help with this. This also affects family members visiting patients in the hospice, who may have to restrict their visits because of travel costs.
Energy costs are a major concern as this is an area where there are limited options. We all need gas and/or electricity and it is right to say that there are some patients having to make a choice of eating or heating. People are no longer reluctant to consider using food banks and the increase in take-up of referrals to food banks confirms this.
Can you tell us about someone you’ve supported recently?
I received a referral for a chap and on checking the possible benefit entitlement. I established they were receiving less benefit than they should. I made the relevant applications on his behalf and his benefit was eventually increased by £85 per week with backdated arrears of almost £12,000.
This allowed him to purchase a mobility scooter to give him a bit more independence. It also allowed him to pre-pay for his funeral, which was one of his major concerns as he was worried how his wife would manage this. Being able to help put his mind at rest was a blessing and he was able to enjoy what time he had left.
What happens when the patient dies?
When people are recently bereaved and struggling to come to terms with the situation, this is the time when a lot of effort is required to sort things out and at a time when they least feel able to do it.
With regards to the gentleman mentioned above, he sadly died within six weeks of sorting out his financial situation. In this instance, I was able to explain to his wife how to go about cancelling benefits and how to notify the various agencies that need to be informed. She changed the benefits into her own name and was able to apply for a bereavement payment of £2,500.
If you, or a family member have a cancer diagnosis and would like to check if there is any financial help available, you can contact George by ringing Ashgate Hospice on 01246 568801 – Option 1 or email George direct on firstname.lastname@example.org