Rhianna Johnson lives in Bundaberg in Queensland and she is one in the long list of sick people denied a disability pension by Centrelink. They say she is not sick enough.
The 24-year old is suffering from cystic fibrosis and two years ago, after a lengthy stay in hospital, she was told that she needed a double lung transplant. She has been on the waiting list since then.
“I was first sent to the Prince Charles Hospital in December 2016. I was in hospital for about three months. My lung function dropped to just 23 percent which was really scary.
“I was on oxygen for a week and I honestly thought I wasn’t going to come off it.”
At this time, she returned to Centrelink, in a wheelchair and pushed by her father, to be told that at best she will have to wait for months, before any decision was made.
She was eventually sent home from the hospital, because there was some improvement in her state of health. Unfortunately, she began to deteriorate again after a while.
Rhianna tried to keep on working, but it was too much and she had to resign. Her condition made it too exhausting. Not being able to breath properly and absorb sufficient oxygen to maintain an active life is hard. It drains strength and demands rest periods.
“I don’t see my friends anymore and I don’t have much energy. When I get up in the morning and I’ve done all my treatments it’s pretty much time for a nap,” she says.
For Rhianna, it has meant being on the waiting list for her life saving operation. It will not cure her cystic fibrosis. Not having the operation means that she will die soon. By having it, her life can be extended in terms of `both time and quality.
This means shifting to Brisbane, where she can get the treatment she needs, especially in the follow up time after the operation. This costs money.
But according to Centrelink’s criterion she is not sick enough to deserve disability support.
Rhianna has chosen to speak out, because she does not want others to go through what she has had to put up with.
The problem is that applicants must meet specific criteria that are designed to rule out many who don’t fall within the very narrow definitions set out on a table. This is not a clinical assessment. To get the points, the person must show virtually complete incapacity to look after oneself. Ability to work is not a consideration.
Meeting the table criteria may not be enough, because Centrelink still demands that the condition must be permanent. In Rhianna’s case, it may be deemed that because a transplant is possible, she may be able to return to work one day. This means that her condition is not permanent.
The cystic fibrosis can be ignored, because this is not deemed to be the event that caused Rhianna to leave work and apply for a benefit.
So how has the Department of Human Services, under which the responsibility for Centrelink falls, reacted to this case?
Department general manager Hank Jongen says, “In situations like these a person must meet specific criteria in order to qualify for Disability Support Pension and a person whose ability to work is affected by a disability or medical condition may be eligible for other payments, such as Sickness Allowance or Newstart Allowance.”
Not good enough. This is the stock run around given in every case, which commits to nothing and leaves the sufferer in an insecure position, without adequate income, and often in a situation that might well aggravate their health.
But maybe people’s health and general well being are not regarded as their problem at Centrelink. This is the point. They should be.