By Emma Hatton of RNZ
Pensioners struggling to get home from Australia are having their superannuation payments stopped and some may be forced to start paying them back.
Jo-Ani Robinson flew to Sydney in March to help her son who had just been diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer.
She had a return flight booked for 31 July and enough heart medication to last her stay.
However her flight was cancelled and she could not secure another one before quarantine-free travel shut down for eight weeks.
Her medication was running out and she was told if she was not back by September 20 her pension would be stopped.
"I got in touch with the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to email them about my plight, because I was worried about my superannuation because I'm aware that you can only be out of the country 26 weeks ... and I got a rather brash email back saying - you knew you went over there in Covid times, so it's your fault."
MSD also told her if she could not get back by October she would have to start repaying the superannuation she received while she was in Australia.
She said the stress was unbearable.
"I feel quite sick about everything the New Zealand Government has put me in such a predicament. I have nowhere else to go to."
Another woman, Frances, also flew to Sydney to be with family but ended up needing emergency surgery and was only recently given clearance to fly by doctors.
"I was trying to get home before the cut off point for superannuation but the flights had stopped and MSD kindly told me that they will not extend the superannuation payments."
MSD has since reversed that decision, saying it had been trying to get in touch with Frances for some time to clarify her circumstances.
While that brought some relief, she was disappointed of the stress she went through.
Neither of the women were eligible for a place on the Government-managed flights out of New South Wales because they arrived in Sydney prior to April 6.
Beneficiary advocate Kay Brereton said people in these circumstances were being treated unfairly.
"They're not people who went on holiday for a bit of a galavant because the borders were open. They're people who went over there to connect with family - quite often unwell family - and we need to realise that this isn't all holidaymakers stuck in NSW.
"There's a whole heap of reasons and some of them really deserve our compassion."
There was no reason why people's financial support should be cut off at all, she said.
"When we had our lockdown in 2020 we had people who were on benefits, or eligible for benefits, all around the world.
"Special rules were put in place to support those people because they couldn't return to New Zealand because we'd closed our borders. What's different now? I'm not sure."
Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said the circumstances were not as extreme as last year's lockdown so the special rules were not required.
She urged anyone in exceptional circumstances to get in touch with MSD and explain why they were out of the country for longer than expected.
In a statement an MSD manager Jason Dwen said Robinson should continue to try and get a flight home before September 20.
"It has been widely publicised that Air New Zealand is putting on extra flights and using bigger aircrafts to return people to New Zealand as a result of "the bubble" being put on hold.
"We've continued to encourage [her] to check the Air New Zealand website regularly to book a return seat to fly as soon as she can to ensure her NZ Super payments continue past 20 September - and to keep us updated to any changes in her circumstances."
MSD could not say how many people in Australia currently had their superannuation payments suspended or were paying it back due to being out of the country for too long.