Concern over financial aid claw-back idea
A proposal that financial assistance could be clawed back from the estates of dead recipients would penalise families, the head of a charity said yesterday.
Martha Dismont, the executive director of Family Centre, said the organisation feared a bid to take back payments “could be seen as making a judgment as to whether the applicant deserved the support”.
She added: “The Government is obligated to care for the vulnerable, which inherently suggests they are deserving of the support, with the only condition being that, unless you are a senior or a disabled person, you must eventually be required to find your way to no longer needing the support.
“It feels unfair to penalise the family of a deceased applicant without knowing the extent to which the family had to assist the applicant prior to him or her reaching out to financial assistance.”
Ms Dismont added: “A blanketed policy to recover assets seems completely unfair.”
She was speaking after Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health, flagged up the claw-back proposal in the House of Assembly as part of a bid to change the way financial aid is handled.
Ms Wilson told MPs: “I would like to find ways for the Government to recover debt and or offset the cost of benefits through the property of deceased financial assistance recipients.
“As a country, we can no longer afford for the state to subsidise persons' inheritances, as currently happens.”
She said that a reform group had proposed 30 changes to financial assistance and that 17 had been accepted.
These included a plan to ask the Attorney-General's Chambers to provide “a legal opinion regarding whether a person who inherits a property from a senior who has benefited from financial assistance should be statutorily required to pay back some portion of the funds to Government”.
Another accepted recommendation was to review policies in other countries to see if they recover financial benefits paid to elderly property owners.
Ms Dismont said that the work of the reform committee was welcome and that most of its recommendations were designed to tackle problems among clients about their experience with Financial Assistance.
Claudette Fleming, the executive director of Age Concern, said that the proposal would need to be “fleshed out”.
She added: “It's very difficult to have a reaction to that statement because there are so many questions that would have to be answered.”
Dr Fleming said that information would be needed on the number of seniors on financial assistance who owned their homes outright and the value of the properties. She asked: “Is the equity in it even comparable to the amount of money that we are actually giving them?”
Dr Fleming also questioned who potential property buyers might be. She explained: “We have an almost dead real estate market right now.”
Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, said the Government was “continuing its reverse Robin Hood ideology”.
He said the main purpose of financial assistance was to “assist citizens who are not able to support themselves or their families due to many reasons”.
Mr Cannonier added: “Generally, it is the elderly and disabled who need the aid.”
He said that Ms Wilson needed to “clarify and expand” on her statement.
Mr Cannonier added: “While there may be some children who do not want to support their parents and let them go on financial assistance, that cannot be everyone”.
He said: “Yet again this Government has left more questions than answers.”
An estate recovery scheme is used in the United States to recover benefits paid to recipients of Medicaid — the health coverage programme for those on low incomes — who later died.
It is applied to the estates of people aged 55 or older for payments made for nursing homes, home and community-based services, and related hospital and prescription drug services.
Under the scheme, funds cannot be recovered from the estates of deceased Medicaid members who are survived by a spouse or a child who is blind, disabled or under the age of 21.
Safeguards are also in place to waive recovery when it would “cause an undue hardship”.
Ms Wilson told the House 3,268 people were on financial assistance last month.
A total of 1,184 were seniors or pensioners, 896 were disabled, and 612 got the child daycare allowance.
There were also 214 unemployed but able-bodied people and 362 low earners.
Ms Wilson said the reform group was set up to “reduce abuse, discourage dependency and ensure that work pays”.
She added: “These are important goals — however, in light of the profile of the persons in need of such assistance, and the type of supports granted, it has become clear that the focus of reform should be on making the programme financially sustainable, improving efficiency and ensuring a more equitable allocation of awards.”
Ms Wilson said that recommendations made in an internal audit report — completed before the recommendations outline by the reform group — would “reduce waste, control budgets and improve service to recipients and applicants”.
She added that the recommendations included a working committee to improve record-keeping and better customer service training for financial assistance staff.
Ms Wilson said eligibility for financial assistance would be based on a “low income threshold” to be set by the Department of Statistics.
She added the programme was “the only form of welfare available to assist the vulnerable, frail and infirm, and the only means to prevent families from descending into poverty”.
But Ms Wilson insisted: “Funds are finite and we have to make sure that we use them efficiently and reach the right people.”