Editorial: Time for rethink on child disability allowance

Despite the name, most receive the child disability allowance for their children's chronic health conditions such as eczema and asthma, rather than severe disabilities. Photo / 123RF
Despite the name, most receive the child disability allowance for their children's chronic health conditions such as eczema and asthma, rather than severe disabilities. Photo / 123RF

A survey which revealed access problems to the child disability allowance has raised more questions than answers. The Child Poverty Action Group and Otara Health interviewed 1084 Otara households to find out how many needed and received the allowance, a $46 a week payment for families who have children with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

It found 108 families qualified but only eight were getting the allowance. The survey was a follow-up to a national report last year, which estimated 11,000 children were missing out on the payment. The Otara project was aimed at finding out why.

Researchers found that 82 per cent of eligible families did not even know about the allowance. Some did not understand the application process and some reported leaving Work and Income in tears after having to re-explain their situation multiple times to unhelpful staff. The researchers said most working parents found it too hard to get time off for repeat visits to their GP and Work and Income to fill out the required forms.

The online version was time consuming and possibly unrealistic for many in a suburb where at least a third of families do not have home internet access.

The report urges several changes which would make the allowance easier to get but this looks unlikely in the short term, given the scheme's troubled history.

The Child Disability Allowance is unusual because it is a flat payment to caregivers and is not means tested. Despite the name, most receive it for their children's chronic health conditions such as eczema and asthma, rather than severe disabilities, which makes it harder to assess who qualifies. As the number of families receiving the allowance increased rapidly in the last decade - apparently in line with increased awareness of conditions such as autism and dyslexia - the cost soared from $28 million in 1997-98 to $102 million in 2009-10. The Government tried to put a lid on the costs with a medical review in 2007, which tightened criteria to the most severe cases. It also seems to have deliberately dropped all publicity to reduce uptake.

The strategy has worked financially. The number of children receiving the allowance has fallen from 45,767 in 2009 to about 32,000 since 2014 and the cost has dropped back to an expected $86 million this year.

The Government may well be reluctant to commit more money to a payment which is not tied directly to health incomes and which depends so heavily on individual GP judgments and possibly some families abusing the system. Allowances for Hawkes Bay and Manawatu are being paid at three times the rate as those in Nelson, which suggests at least an inconsistent approach.

This Government prides itself on its data-driven approach to tough social issues. It needs to declare if it has confidence in the integrity of the Child Disability Allowance. If it does, it should stop making families jump through hoops to get it. If it doesn't, it should replace the allowance soon with something that serves children's health needs better.

- NZ Herald

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