Jean Murray is a Macmillan CAB benefits adviser, based at the Mater Hospital in Belfast
I started out as a volunteer adviser with Citizens Advice Belfast but, for the last 18 months, I’ve been working as a Macmillan CAB benefits adviser on site, here at the Mater.
I’m on hand to help people who are being treated for cancer with benefits checks and applications, as well as more complex case work. It’s so important to be working in a hospital setting because it means I’m ready to get the ball rolling, as soon as they are diagnosed. I’ve been able to build good working relationships with the nurses and social workers which has increased the number of referrals coming from the Mater site to our service. I can visit clients on the ward, make an appointment to see them in my office, which is just across the road, or carry out a telephone appointment.
Many of the cancer patients I see are in a state of shock. Their lives have been turned upside down. All of a sudden, they’re facing a life-changing diagnosis and a potential loss of income, if they or their partner have to stop working. Few are aware of which benefits payments they can claim and people are always telling me that they wouldn’t have known where to start because many have never had to deal with our complex welfare system. It can be overwhelming at the best of times.
I’m proud to say that, last year alone, Macmillan’s network of benefits advisers in Northern Ireland helped over 6,000 people with cancer claim more than £14 million in benefits payments and patient grants. Here in Belfast, I and my colleagues made sure our clients – all 2,285 of them – received more than £5 million in ongoing welfare entitlements and one-off grants.
It’s a huge amount of money, if you think that many of these new claimants might not have known about their entitlements without the specialist advice service that I and the team of Macmillan CAB advisers provide.
Northern Ireland has the highest level of fuel poverty in the UK and this has resulted in a disproportionate number of cancer patients needing financial help to cover heating bills. Research by Macmillan has found that three out of four people in Northern Ireland find themselves, on average, around £300 a month worse off as a result of a cancer diagnosis, due to their reduced incomes and increased expenses.
I’m here to maximise their income with patient grants to cover things like the cost of getting to and from hospital, or heating bills. People going through chemotherapy or radiotherapy often tell me that they feel the cold more, but are worried about paying to keep their homes warm.
That’s why I would like to see every cancer patient referred for benefits advice to help to stop escalating financial difficulties and worries at a time when people should only have to focus on their health.
For financial support and to find a nearby face-to-face benefits advisor visit http://www.macmillan.org.uk/moneyworries or call free on 0808 808 00 00