A mum hounded by the NHS over fees of just £29 took her own life by overdosing on the anti-depressants that drove her into debt.
Penny Oliver owed sums of £8.60 and £20.60. But with penalty fees and surcharges these rocketed – the second one alone soaring to £120.60.
And having lost hundreds of pounds a month when her benefits were cut, mum Penny, 54, simply couldn’t pay.
She had just a few pounds in her account and was surrounded by payment demands when her family found her dead in bed in June.
Letters from the council, the NHS and Department for Work and Pensions included threats to take her to court and inform her employer if she did not pay up.
Penny, from Whitstable, Kent, took an overdose and left heartbreaking letters to her children.
Her family says the NHS and DWP have blood on their hands.
Labour last night called for an urgent review into the NHS system of chasing unpaid prescription bills.
Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said This is shocking. Questions have to be asked about the humanity of a system that does this to vulnerable people.
Penalty charges should be scrapped – it’s a disgrace to exploit vulnerable, ill people in this way. Ministers urgently need to step in and review this system.
Our NHS is there to help patients get better not make their condition worse by putting unacceptable burdens on people like this.
Penny’s daughter Charlotte, 29, said The irony that she overdosed on anti-depressants, because she couldn’t afford to pay the prescription charges, is so painful for us as a family.
This should never happen. Mum was struggling to cope with having her benefits cut when she was already suffering from poor mental health.
But the very NHS that should have been helping her to deal with her depression instead began hounding her for cash and helped push her over the edge. She ended her life as a result.
Penny suffered anxiety and depression for most of her life and in 2014 was left devastated by the death of son Josh, 15, after he took ecstasy.
She could only work part-time – as a tapas bar chef – because of a back problem. She received benefits and was entitled to free NHS prescriptions and subsidised dental treatment.
But last November DWP assessors deemed her fit for full-time work. That meant no more free prescriptions, including those for anti-depressants.
Penny’s family say she ticked the free prescription form at a point when she believed she was still entitled. Demands for payments later came from the NHS Business Services Authority, which chases debt and ploughs proceeds back into healthcare. One letter seeking £8.60 was sent in May but listed likely penalty fees.
The final demand arrived after Penny’s death – for £73.10, including a £43 penalty and £21.50 surcharge.
Another letter, dated March 15, demanded that £20.60 for NHS dental treatment and a £100 penalty charge for non-payment be settled within 28 days.
It warned of a possible further £50 charge. Penny was left in a state of panic, said Charlotte.
She added How can the NHS justify demands for a sum almost 10 times the payment she missed? It’s unthinkable.
She was trying to keep her head above water. It saddens me that she spent the end of her life in panic and feeling so out of control that she saw no way out other than death.
The combination of demands from the NHS, the council and the DWP got too much. I believe if the NHS had helped her rather than piling more pressure on her she would still be here now.
Penny was on benefits while unable to work full-time because of chronic back pain. When it eased – but anxiety issues remained – the DWP ruled she was fit for work.
Her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was withdrawn from January. In turn, her council tax support ceased and housing benefit was halved, from £121.15 a week to just £58.63. Two months later, the council said she owed £303.77 in overpaid benefit.
A DWP demand sent in February said she owed £109.36 and warned that her boss could be contacted to deduct cash at source – or debt collectors might be called in. Penny agreed to pay £5 a week.
She also upped her hours of work from 15 to 30 and even gave her beloved border collie Meggie to a friend.
And, says Charlotte, her mum told her GP she was contemplating suicide.
Finally, on June 14 she took an overdose at her one-bed flat. An inquest in Maidstone heard that Penny’s mental health deteriorated rapidly after her benefits were cut. Coroner Georgina Gibbs recorded a verdict of suicide, saying Penny left notes for her children.
Charlotte believes the benefits system penalises people in work and fails to take mental health conditions seriously.
She said They are ruining people’s lives. They have blood on their hands. Whatever self respect people have left, the authorities are crushing.
I don’t think the DWP understand how bad it can be living with depression and anxiety.
Brother Alex, 31, added There is a serious lack of support. The authorities should have been trying to help her.
Canterbury City Council, the DWP and NHS Business Services Authority all extended their sympathies to the family.
The council said The law compels us to notify customers of overpayments and seek recovery where appropriate. In Miss Oliver’s case, recovery was by small weekly deductions. We encourage people to contact us so we can resolve concerns.
The DWP said We are committed to ensuring people with health conditions get support they’re entitled to.
Decisions are made following consideration of all information, including medical evidence.
Claimants have the right to a mandatory reconsideration of any decision and can further appeal to an independent tribunal.
Ms Oliver was provided with this information and advice on how to apply for other in-work benefits.
News Source MirrorNews