Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Illness Benefit Waiting Times
47. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the burden imposed on those who were denied rightful entitlement to illness benefit at various points during 2018; and the way in which she plans to address same. [53255/18]
I raise this question in relation to the scandalous recent and ongoing delays in illness benefit payments. The introduction of the new IT system platform launched in the summer was very poorly handled. Constituents cannot understand how the most vulnerable citizens, those who are working and have had to leave employment because of serious illness, are left in a completely penurious state. It is unacceptable. What is the Minister going to do beyond simply words of apology? If it was a bank, we certainly would not simply accept an apology from them.
I wish to make it clear that all Deputies of the House are not expected to be here. I am sure they are expected to be in the House for their own questions. I do not think a Deputy should be reprimanded for not being here earlier.
No. We certainly will not. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. My Department transferred the administration of the illness benefit, IB, scheme from a legacy IT platform to its newer core IT platform in August 2018. Although the system change has worked effectively for more than 80% of illness benefit customers, significant difficulties arose for a number of customers following the implementation. This was a matter of great concern and genuine regret to my Department and to all of the people in the illness benefit section.
My Department took three main steps to resolve the issues impacting on payments. First, it deployed additional staff to process work and respond to the customer enquiries, which were in the thousands. Second, it developed some new IT workarounds to address the payment gap issues and to ensure a faster flow-through of payments to illness benefit recipients. Third, we continue to review the design rules in the new system to afford greater flexibility in the processing of claims and certificates. I believe we have made good progress in this regard, with payment levels returned to and maintained at the expected norm of more than 50,000 customers paid each week for the past two months. Arrears payments have also been made to customers whose payments were delayed. Telephone helpline and call handling performance has also been addressed and is now, thankfully, back to normal levels.
Currently, people who are due a payment and whose certificates and claims are in order receive their payment entitlement promptly. It is important to note that there are always cases where a person makes an application and expects to receive a payment but the payment is legitimately stopped or paused for a variety of reasons.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
In addition, there will always be cases where errors are made that impact on payments to individual customers. While we endeavour to keep these to a minimum, it is inevitable that some errors will be made in an illness benefit scheme that processes more than 9,000 transactions per day. To ensure we learn from the lessons of the transition of the IB system onto a new platform, I have arranged for an independent review into how the changes to IB were planned, implemented and - importantly - communicated to customers. I expect this work to be completed early in 2019. Finally, I sincerely apologise again for the difficulties and burden experienced by customers earlier this year and believe the action taken to address these issues has worked and is continuing to work to ensure customers receive a good standard of service.
For the benefit of the House, I am sure Members are aware that if there is another question, it cannot be linked with a priority question. This is the rule of the House and I want to make it known to those who may not be aware. Deputy Byrne may now ask his first supplementary question.
I am certainly not late to this issue. On one day in recent months my office handled 17 separate complaints, including one from an individual from an estate within walking distance of the Minister's office who was not able to get any satisfaction from that office. Another case the Minister describes as a party is that of a lady with breast cancer who initially came to me through a pharmacist and who could not get a medical card. She told me that the reason she could not afford her medicine was because her illness benefit had not been paid. We took that on as a separate issue. That is what the Minister describes as a party. It is no party for my constituents. If a bank were to do this to these constituents, if it were to deprive them of money through negligence, not only would the money be repaid but interest and compensation would be paid. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection needs to look at itself extremely carefully. For the Minister to describe this as a party is absolutely devastating for the constituents affected. We have raised this on numerous occasions. I thank the staff because when a Deputy's office rings there is a mechanism with the Department to sort these issues out relatively quickly once that call is made. I feel sorry for those constituents who did not think to ring a Deputy's office or who could not get through on the phone lines. I thank the staff but the Department must come up with better than criticising the Opposition and describing the issue as a party.
I probably owe Deputy Byrne an apology if he thinks I was criticising him or the Opposition. The Opposition from all sides of this House has been nothing but incredibly helpful with regard to this process in recent months. I have acknowledged this on so many occasions that I have forgotten how many, but I will do it again. When we changed over in August, we upset a system with the premise of trying to make it more efficient for the more than 50,000 recipients who receive illness benefit, to which they are absolutely entitled. They get it because they pay into the Social Insurance Fund and they get it every single week. When we tried to introduce efficiency to the system we cocked up. We made an entire balls of it. We messed up. We have apologised profusely, and I will do it again. To all of those people who for far too many weeks and months were ill-affected by the changes in the Department I sincerely apologise.
We have done three things in recent months to ensure that the efficiencies which were originally anticipated are brought to the system. We have co-operated with our GPs who, in fairness, have worked with us tirelessly in recent months to make sure that the system is efficient. Initially it was efficient for 80% of the people. The GPs have worked incredibly effectively and hard with us in recent months for the 20% who were maligned by the new system. I am happy to say we have reached a new agreement with the IMO and all of our GPs with regard to the new systems and ecertification to start next year.
With regard to the phone lines, the number of calls is right back down to a manageable amount. As I said here earlier, although I know we should not be linking old questions with different questions and for that I apologise, the number of people who have been coming to us through Deputies' offices has significantly reduced in recent months. As I said earlier to all of the Deputies here, if anybody, including Deputy Thomas Byrne, has any constituency issues they would like to bring to the attention of the Department, I would be very happy to take them and have them resolved immediately.
My colleague, Deputy O'Dea, tells me that it is not correct that all GPs have signed up. In fact more than 70% of GPs have confirmed that they are still using the old form. As recently as yesterday we were on to the Department about a constituent who religiously and routinely sends in her certificates weekly but who has been deprived of payment. We do not want apologies. We have heard the apologies. We want practical help for the people who have been put in really difficult situations, the consequences of which are still affecting them. This is no party for anyone on illness benefit. Illness benefit is a payment people get when something tremendously bad happens in their life which prevents them from continuing to work. Only people in the most serious of cases get illness benefit. I accept the Minister's apology, but to describe it as a party really shows the attitude of the Minister and within the Department which led to this situation festering over the summer and recent months. I contend that it is still affecting some constituents of which I am aware.
I have been told that a fix has been put in place in the illness benefit section which will mean that all medical forms will be certified to cover the Christmas period. I see that as trying to put off any negative press for the Department and for the Minister. I am told that there will be a litany of problems come January because of this blanket certification which is being put in place over the Christmas period. Will the Minister give us categorical assurances that there will be no further problems with the automated system come the new year?
The Department is not employing any blanket certification currently. Deputy Brady will see in every single local and regional newspaper throughout the country that we have spent a significant amount of money to inform people as to when their payments will be made over the Christmas period. There will be no changes to effective illness benefit whatsoever. People who get paid on a Monday will be paid on a Monday, and it will be the same for those paid on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. There is no blanket certification.
I am not sure what Deputy Byrne means by his claim. The 9,000 certificates we receive every single day come in on the new forms. There are some old forms still in existence in our GP services. We have agreed with our GPs that claims on these forms will still be paid until all of those old forms are exhausted and they move on to the new forms. For the record of the House I will say for the third time that the IMO and the Department successfully concluded negotiations last week. I look forward to a continued prosperous relationship between the two.