Terminally ill man spent final two weeks filling out Centrelink forms

Disability advocates say Centrelink should have approved John's disability support pension immediately. Source: AAP

The 61-year-old from Melbourne attempted suicide after his welfare payments were cancelled twice in the months before his death, advocates say.

Disability advocates are urging the government to simplify the disability support pension application after a terminally ill man with bowel cancer spent his last two weeks filling out a 33-page Centrelink form. 

The 61-year-old Melbourne man, known only as 'John', was told by doctors he was not likely to live for six months when they removed part of his bowel in February. 

He reached out to The Disability Resource Centre's resource unit DRC Advocacy immediately, but executive officer Kerri Cassidy said the system ultimately failed him. 

"In John’s last two weeks, he was filling in that form when he could’ve been spending time with his children, with his friends, focusing on his own health and making his last days as fulfilling as he could," Ms Cassidy told SBS News. 

"Instead, he spent his last days worrying whether he would have a place to live, whether he could eat, whether he could pay for his medication." 

John had no income and had fallen behind on his rent, but his landlord was sympathetic to his situation and she allowed him to stay in his accommodation. 

He returned to hospital early last month and died just a few days before his disability support pension was approved. 

Ms Cassidy said there are provisions in place for terminally ill patients to be placed on the pension, but those protocols were not followed in John's case.

"He had what’s called a manifest impairment - he had a condition and he was told he was not likely to live for six months," she said. 

"In that situation, there is facility for Centrelink to approve it immediately, and that’s what should’ve happened. He shouldn’t have had to have spent two weeks filling in that form.

"We have that in place to protect people in this very specific situation, and we’re not entirely sure why that didn’t happen for John." 

Advocates say it is far too difficult for people with disabilities to access government pensions.
Advocates say it is far too difficult for people with disabilities to access government pensions.

When Ms Cassidy and the DRC Advocacy team realised John was high-risk, they gave his case top priority and helped him get on Newstart while his disability pension application was being processed.

But Ms Cassidy said his Newstart allowance was cancelled twice, and he received a notification of debt from the Department of Human Services.

"During this time, he was suicidal and he did [attempt suicide], which was distressing for his landlady and also for us," she said.

"I think that was the catalyst for him really going downhill rather quickly. He ended up being admitted to hospital for his bowel cancer and passed away early last month." 

When the disability support pension was approved and paid out after his death, Ms Cassidy said Centrelink then made a claim on his estate for that money.

"But it now looks like they've waived that request," she said. 

The Department of Human Services oversees Centrelink services. The department's general manager Hank Jongen told SBS News no debt had been raised against John's estate and that his team had been in contact with John's family to make sure they knew that. 

"We are deeply sorry for this breakdown in service," Mr Jongen said.

"We also extend our condolences to the family for their loss and apologise for adding to their distress.

"We'll be investigating this case to establish what went wrong and how we can ensure it doesn't happen to others."

While she believes John's case was particularly "terrible", Ms Cassidy said these situations have become all too common. 

"Engaging with Centrelink is almost a comedy of errors - documents being lost, people not being told the information they need," she said. 

“With the disability support pension, we’re talking about people with a huge variety of disabilities and illness – people with low literacy levels or intellectual disabilities or people with brain injuries, and this process is just made all the more difficult.

"When people are in an acute stage of illness, in that moment, there should be services available to ensure people's home lives are stable, that they have adequate income to live well and to manage their condition." 

In addition to lobbying for change, Ms Cassidy and DRC Advocacy is creating resources to guide people through the disability support pension application process. 

Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800.

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