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Benefits: Cancer Patients

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 7 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What mechanisms are in place in the National Health Service to ensure that cancer patients are aware of the financial support available to them through the benefits system.

My Lords, local policies are being developed to routinely offer information throughout the cancer patient pathway. The department is developing the concept of information prescriptions, which will guide people to further sources of information about their care, including benefit information and advice.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that the National Audit Office has found that three-quarters of cancer patients receive no information on financial support. Given the devastating effect that cancer can have on patients’ finances, can the Minister confirm that the cancer reform strategy will include new mechanisms to monitor and improve benefits awareness among cancer patients?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the NAO’s report; he might also have mentioned the Macmillan report in this area. We are concerned about this. It is clearly important that the patients he refers to receive advice and are signposted not just to the forms but also to help in filling them in. We take this very much to heart. The NHS should not have a role in giving benefit advice, but it should certainly be able to signpost people to obtaining those benefits. We will redouble our efforts in that area.

My Lords, the Minister will know that the manual of cancer services is the principal way in which cancer services are audited, and is based on peer review. Does he accept that the way to ensure the correct financial support is to have pages on benefit information prominently within it?

My Lords, that is a helpful suggestion and I will ensure that it is considered. The whole purpose of the information prescriptions being piloted over the next year or so is to ensure that patients who particularly need advice—not just on care, but also on benefits—receive it. I will take that suggestion away and consider it.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm, one way or the other, whether the Healthcare Commission’s annual health check is currently being used to monitor the financial support information given by NHS trusts? If it is not, will he give careful consideration to a proposal that it should be? Moreover, will he keep in close rapport with Macmillan Cancer Support about this?

My Lords, I pay tribute to Macmillan for its excellent work. There is no doubt that its report showed clear evidence that many cancer patients were not aware of the financial support available to them.

We want the Healthcare Commission to monitor and evaluate the performance of NHS organisations. While I am happy to take that point back to the commission, however, it is an independent body and must clearly target the information that it checks out with each organisation. I will certainly refer that matter to it.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a major drain on the resources of cancer patients—and not just cancer patients—is that they must often attend hospital for treatments every day and that the car park fees can be enormous? They get no compensation for it. Can the Minister say what the National Health Service proposes to do about this?

My Lords, I know that car parking exercises many Members of your Lordships’ House. It is and must be a matter for decision-making at the local level of the NHS, but guidance is available to individual organisations on a range of factors that need to be considered. On help with travel costs, there are various NHS schemes to help people on low incomes to get to hospital without incurring financial costs.

My Lords, are those benefits unique to cancer patients or do they also apply to people requiring long-term continuing treatment?

My Lords, there are what are called special rules for terminal illness, particularly in relation to attendance allowance and disability living allowance. They enable people who have any progressive disease from which death can reasonably be expected within six months to be immediately awarded the higher rate attendance allowance or the higher rate disability living allowance. On the question of the complexity of the forms, those people do not have to fill in many of the pages.

My Lords, the Minister will be only too aware that one of the best ways for cancer patients to find out about anything, including the financial support available to them, is through information provided by their GP. The Minister more or less said that he does not want GPs or the NHS to provide financial information or that kind of advice, but does he agree that we ought to be using the quality outcomes framework more effectively to encourage GPs to give at least minimal financial support information to patients? If he does agree, would he encourage that?

My Lords, I want to draw a distinction with regard to asking health professionals to give advice on benefit claims in what is acknowledged to be a hugely complex area. Forms and leaflets—and suggestions from health professionals—stating that a patient may wish to consider claiming benefits, and signposts to where they might get help in doing so, ought to be available in every NHS outlet and GP’s surgery; that is important.

My Lords, I am not sure which guidance forms the noble Lord has in mind. My understanding in relation to the general guidance that the health service gives is that publications are often turned into different languages. I am sure that the Welsh health service is very used to dealing with that issue. However, I doubt whether any information is held centrally that details the thousands of guidance documents given out in the NHS and which languages they use. However, we do, of course, understand the need to make sure that as much guidance as possible is available for people who use English as a second language.