A breast cancer patient says the past five months have been a ‘living hell’ after a benefits delay left her struggling to pay bills and buy food.
Maureen Lee, 54, was diagnosed with cancer in May and, after undergoing surgery, she still has five gruelling months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to cope with.
Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Maureen – who also suffers from coeliac disease and back problems which mean she can’t work – had been living on £102.15 per week in Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments from the government.
But just days before she was told she had breast cancer, those payments were stopped following a work capability assessment and Maureen was told to instead claim Jobseekers’ Allowance.
Maureen reapplied for ESA when she found out she was seriously ill, but for the past 20 weeks has been stuck on the ESA ‘assessment rate’ of just £73.10 per week.
Despite numerous phone calls and letters explaining her circumstances, plus visits to the Job Centre and Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Maureen was unable to get the situation resolved satisfactorily.
She said: “I have been seriously ill – but rather than resting and focusing on my recovery from major surgery and ongoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I have been worrying about how I am going to pay my rent, bills and feed myself.
“I have had to rely on the generosity of friends and also the Stamford Foodbank – but I’m coeliac and foodbanks do a great job but aren’t really geared up to help people like me who have to eat a carefully controlled diet for health reasons.
“It has been hell. I’ve been in tears so many times. I have enough to worry about as it is without having the stress of arguing my case over the phone, writing letters and filling in forms.
“I know I’m not the only breast cancer patient to have experienced similar delays.”
Maureen, who lives alone in Harrington Street, Bourne, has received a lot of support from long-standing family friend Emma Goldsmith, who was so worried about her health and emotional well-being that she started dealing with all the paperwork.
Emma said: “It has been an emotional rollercoaster. Maureen has always been there for me over the years and I couldn’t just see her in the state she was in without trying my best to help her.
“It has really affected her badly. There must be a better way of treating cancer patients who need financial assistance without making them struggle by for months on the lowest level of ESA while dealing with unhelpful call centre staff and lots of letters and forms.”
The Mercury spoke to the Department for Work and Pensions about Maureen’s case on Monday. A day later, she received a call to say she would be moved up to the higher level of ESA and would receive a backdated lump sum to cover the period she was out of pocket.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We have been in contact with Ms Lee to apologise for the delay in fully assessing her claim. Arrangements have now been made to pay the arrears of benefit due to her.”
Maureen added: “It is great that this has finally been sorted out, but I wonder how many others there are out there who are suffering as I did? Not everyone is lucky enough to have a close friend willing to fight for them like Emma. I couldn’t have done it without her.”