CALLS have been made to make fundamental changes to the welfare system after Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys was forced to publicly apologise to a Wexford mother who received a letter demanding the repayment of €208 in disability allowance, collected the day after her severely disabled son passed away.
Having cared for her beloved Brendan Bjorn for 17 years and battled valiantly to keep him alive and comfortable, Tracy McGinnis from Oulart was devastated when her son finally passed on May 17.
On May 18, his disability payment was collected at the local post office, with Tracy believing that she was entitled to six week’s grace after Brendan Bjorn’s passing. However, last Friday she received a letter from the Department of Social Protection and Family Affairs asking that she repay a week’s allowance which they say had been wrongly paid, as her son had passed away.
While the letter began by saying “I offer sincere sympathy to you and your family on your recent bereavement”, it continued stating: “It has come to our attention that Mr McGinnis (Brendan Bjorn) died on 17/5/22. Payments continued to be collected at the post office up to and including the 18/5/22. This has resulted in an overpayment of €208.00 from 18/5/22 to 24/5/22.
"This money now needs to be refunded to the department. As you were the agent on Mr McGinnis’s claim, I am writing to you for clarification in this matter.”
The letter then continues offering advice on how and where money should be repaid and by when, as well as offering the opportunity to repay the €208 in instalments “if you are unable to refund in full at this time”.
Understandably, the letter caused Tracy considerable distress.
"Yes, I collected the mere €208 the week my first born son died, thinking payments went on for 6 weeks,” she said. “This demand letter disgusts me.”
Tracy followed the letter up with a phone call to the Department, but to no avail.
"I just got a phone call from the 'Assistant Principal of the Disability Allowance section’ in Longford,” she said. “She apologised for the tone of the letter, but stated that it stands as policy, so yes; the €208 is still owed to them.
"It’s maddening to think that politicians can get away not only with earning so much not just in salary, but travel expenses etc. I bet not one of them could have, or would have, done the 24/7 nursing level work I did with my son for so many years, for no pay, no pension etc.
“Carers save the state billions annually, yet get nothing in return. As I now see it, three weeks on from my son’s death, we are thrown to the wolves as soon as our caring role is over, meaning the person that we so loved and were devoted to for so many years has died. Just like that, all financial supports are stopped bar the half rate carers allowance at €112 per week for 12 weeks following his death, then nothing. The powers that be make it clear to me that if it wasn’t for my other son - and I thank God for him – I'd have nothing to live for.”
Speaking to Anton Savage on Newstalk over the weekend, Minister Humphreys apologised for the letter and stated that Ms McGinnis would not in fact have to repay the €208.
"How anybody thought it was appropriate to send a letter to a grieving mother is beyond me,” she said. “I have spoken to my officials about it they are going to look at how they handle cases like this in the future.
“All I can do is apologise. We got it wrong here and we have to hold our hands up and accept that,” she said.
Asked whether Ms McGinnis would have to repay the €208 disability payment, the Minister said: “As far as I’m concerned, this is about common sense and compassion, and no, she won’t have to repay the money.”
More generally, a statement from the Department said that the position in a situation like this is that “Carer’s Allowance will continue to be paid for 12 weeks after a death.
“The Carer’s Support Grant of €1,850 will also be paid if it is due during this 12-week payment.”
However, “like other primary social welfare payments, Disability Allowance ceases to be made to the person when they pass away. The only exception is where the deceased person had been receiving an increase for a qualified adult dependant (e.g. spouse or partner) in which case payment can continue to be paid for six weeks after a death.”
Having noted the Minister’s apology, Tracy is now calling for the system to be changed going forward to avoid other carer’s having to endure the same distress.
In Ireland, if a child under the age of 16 who is cared for in their family home dies, Carer’s Allowance and Domiciliary Care Allowance are paid for another 12 weeks or three months.
However, when a child turns 16, they are entitled to Disability Allowance that is paid to their name, rather than the Domiciliary Care Allowance that is provided in the case of younger children.
If the child dies aged 16 or over, Carer’s Allowance is paid for another 12 weeks but all other payments stop immediately.
Tracy is now urging the Minister to extend social welfare supports upon the death of a child aged 16 or older being cared for in the family home in the same way as those under 16.
“After what has happened to me, being cut off instantly of all social welfare supports (bar the half rate Carer’s Allowance for 12 weeks) after the death of my beloved 17-year-old profoundly disabled son, for whom I provided 24/7 nursing level care in our home, I have now examined where there is a gaping hole in the system when it comes to losing the person being cared for in the home,” she said.
“I ask this be changed immediately so other families don’t experience this additional hardship at such a heart breaking time of bereavement.”