Blow for cancer sufferers as advice service faces the axe

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CANCER sufferers are facing another blow as a service helping them find out what benefits they are entitled to could be axed as soon as March.

As well as having to contend with the threat posed by the killer disease, cancer patients face being left out of pocket by £100 a week once the welfare reform bill currently going through Parliament becomes law.

And on top of that, the Macmillan Cancer Care’s six welfare benefits advisers based at citizens’ advice bureaux in Northumberland face the axe after funding for them runs out the month after next.

Paul Robertson, the charity’s cancer adviser working out of Wansbeck Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Ashington, said the service, set up five years ago by Macmillan but since taken over by NHS North of Tyne, faced being forced to fold within a matter of weeks.

That, he said, would leave many cancer sufferers in the dark about what benefits they can claim.

Mr Robertson, also based at Ashington’s Wansbeck General Hospital, said: “For this current financial year, we have been funded by NHS North of Tyne, but we are concerned we are not going to get any funding after March.

“If that’s the case, there will be no face-to-face cancer welfare benefits advisers across Northumberland.

“I visit people in their homes and work with the terminally ill.

“I have had debts written off for clients and negotiated better tariffs with gas and electricity companies.

“Anything we are qualified to do we will help with.

“We have clients we have looked after for a year or more and I see people who are just worried about how they are going to cope.

“So far this current financial year, we have secured £500,000 for our clients in Wansbeck. That’s money that comes back into Wansbeck.”

The proposed changes to a contribution-based employment and support allowance, as part of the welfare reform bill, could mean cancer patients will lose up to £99.85 per week from their income.

Disability living allowance also looks set to be replaced by a personal independence payment, with the government hoping to save £600m a year.

Mr Robertson said: “Finance causes an immense amount of stress to people, which places a further burden on the NHS and an extreme burden on Macmillan nurses and cancer nurses from the health authority.

“I can’t believe that at a time like this, with the welfare reform bill going through, we are not going to be there.”

One of Paul’s clients, Pat McKeown, 61, of Ashington, was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago.

The grandfather of two said: “I went for a scan, and a couple of minutes later, I was told I had bowel cancer. It was a complete shock, like it would be to most people.

“I had absolutely no idea about what we could claim for. I was given a sick note for work.

“We are so grateful for Paul’s help. He took the pressure off. He took us through the forms and helped me fill them out.

“They were worrying times, but through Paul and through the service, it took away a lot of the stress.

“I have worked all my life, and this is where I think these people are really helpful. When I was hit with this, I didn’t have a clue what to do.

“I went to the jobcentre, and they said I would have to wait until I knew what was happening with my work, whether I would be made redundant or not. It was really down to me to find out for myself.”

Mr McKeown, originally from Glasgow, was given the all-clear five weeks ago, but he is still suffering side-effects from his treatment and has yet to return to work as a cleaner.

He added: “More and more people are being diagnosed with cancer, and I just don’t understand these people who want to close this service down.”

A spokeswoman for NHS North of Tyne said: “It was agreed that the costs for the Macmillan-Citizens’ Advice Bureau cancer benefits advice service would be supported by the local NHS for one year from April 2011. Prior to this time, the scheme was implemented and funded directly by Macmillan.

“While we recognise the value of this service, we have to think very carefully about how NHS money is used to support non-health services – and in this case, we believe that benefits advice can be provided through the usual Citizens’ Advice Bureau service, along with benefits advice for people who have other long-term health conditions.

“We’ve been having ongoing discussions with both Macmillan Cancer Care and the bureau throughout the year, and they have been aware for some time that this scheme was unlikely to be a priority for NHS funding over other health services that have a direct impact on health outcomes.

“We understand that Macmillan are working with the bureau to see if this scheme can be integrated into their general benefits advice service.”