LETTER: Universal credit is a total mess

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Universal Credit is replacing several State benefits and is currently undergoing a phased roll out across the UK. Mansfield and Ashfield has recently become a Universal Credit zone.

The introduction of this new form of benefit payment has already attracted much criticism arising from the lack of a well thought out implementation strategy. New benefit claimants have had to

wait around six-to-eight weeks before receiving their first payment. This has resulted in some serious outcomes for some people and some have even found themselves homeless due to being unable to make rental payments, I understand.

Our local food banks have been experiencing unprecedented demands to support benefit claimants having to wait for a first payment.

The Prime Minister has intervened on this particular implementation problem but other issues are now beginning to surface.

Most Universal Credit claimants are eligible for exemption from paying NHS prescriptions and dental treatments. To acquire such exemptions, a claimant must tick the correct box on the back of their prescription form. In our geographical area the current prescription forms do not have a box to tick for Universal Credit. The claimant is then at the mercy of a pharmacy assistant to advise them on the correct box to tick. There are two boxes on the back of the form for Jobseekers’ Allowance , the previous benefit payment model. One box is for income-based Jobseekers’ Allowance and the other is contribution based Jobseekers’ Allowance. The uninitiated Universal Credit claimant then has to decide which box to tick and may be given the wrong advice at their pharmacy.

If you make an unwitting error at this stage, within a few weeks you will receive a penalty notice from NHS business services telling you that you must pay the cost of the prescription plus a penalty, which can add up to £50 or more.

Equally, if you fail to tell your dentist that you are receiving Universal Credit then you will find yourself in receipt of an even bigger penalty notice.

The big problem at this stage is you will only have one five-page letter from Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) letting you know that you have been awarded Universal Credit. This letter is unacceptable to NHS business services since it has to cover the current period in which you are claiming exemption from payments for drugs or dental treatment.

Once you have received a penalty notice from NHS business services you will be asked to pay within a few weeks or provide evidence that you are receiving a benefit that qualifies you for exemption from payments. Your letter which confirms you have been awarded Universal Credit will not then be accepted as the NHS demands a five-page letter from DWP to cover the relevant benefit assessment period. You are now between a rock and a hard place.

When you contact NHS business services it will tell you to get in touch with DWP.

When you eventually get past the automated messages and get to speak to a real person at DWP it will tell you that unless there has been a change in your circumstances it does not normally send a five-page letter out to cover every assessment period. You now therefore don’t have the necessary evidence to send to NHS business services.

When you tell this to NHS business services you are then advised to access your own online Universal Credit account, look for the section that covers the required assessment period, then simply down load it and send it to NHS business services. Simple ?

When you try repeatedly to access your online Universal Credit account you will then resort to contacting DWP again. What you will be told then is that this service is not yet available in all parts of the UK that are covered by Universal Credit. This includes Mansfield and Ashfield. This is all ongoing while at the same time you are expected to be doing 37 hours per week of job searching

You then have to contact DWP to ask again for a letter to send to NHS business services. By this time you will be getting very close to an additional penalty being added to your original fine.

The system for providing evidence to NHS business services dealing with dental fee penalties is somewhat easier to deal with as the dental side of NHS business Sevices include a form with your penalty notice for you to take to your JobCentre and ask for it to be signed and stamped by them as evidence that you were in receipt of Universal Credit at the time you received your dental treatment. Why this is not an option when it comes to dealing with penalty notices for claiming free prescriptions is hard to understand.

In summary I would like to call on our local MPs and your newspaper to highlight the mess surrounding the phasing in of Universal Credit.

I would also warn all claimants not to rely on advice from pharmacy assistants on which alternative box to tick on your prescription form when there is no box clearly labelled Universal Credit. Choose the Income based Jobseekers’ Allowance box otherwise you will be receiving a penalty notice from NHS business services, which will undoubtedly be raking is some very useful revenue from people who are already struggling to make ends meet .

I feel that a good lawyer would be able to take NHS business services to task over the confusion surrounding the very chaotic implementation of Universal Credit. Can you be fined for not ticking the right box when the right box is not on the form?

Confused

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