The recent digitisation of the Healthy Start voucher scheme has been plagued with issues, leaving thousands of families without cards or declined at check outs. On the back of our letter with the Food Foundation to Health Secretary Sajid Javid asking for immediate fixes, we check in on the progress and lay out what needs to be done next.
In March, Sustain, the Food Foundation and allies sent a letter to Health Secretary Sajid Javid outlining issues with the digitisation of the Healthy Start scheme. Some progress has been made since then, but we are seeking further clarification from the Department of Health and the NHS Business Service Authority (NHS BSA).
Here are 4 things we need to see happen next:
1. We want confirmation that all technical glitches will be addressed, both with the application system and with retailers’ software, so that all eligible parents and pregnant women are able to receive and make use of the Healthy Start card.
The NHS BSA have confirmed that a glitch in the Healthy Start application system is fixed and that payments will be backdated. However, the Healthy Start Facebook page continues to be filled with comments from parents who used to receive paper vouchers and are now being told they are ineligible. And this is not the only technical issue: there remain countless complaints about difficulties actually using the card to buy food.
2. We want confirmation that all payments missed because of glitches in the application system will be backdated and paid in full.
In a response to enquiries from Sustain and BBC Solent, the NHS BSA say: “If someone was incorrectly given an unsuccessful result and there is evidence of this, their payments will be backdated.” What evidence is required is unclear. Previous discussions with the NHS BSA suggest that those who have made contact via the Healthy Start phone line and have logged their complaint this way will have missed payments backdated, but the phone line is expensive, and has been plagued with long wait times and callers being cut-off before getting through. This also wrongly puts the burden of correcting the error on recipients, who were not at fault. We are therefore concerned that many people who wrongly had their applications refused will not have backdated payments.
3. We want the data on digital uptake published as soon as possible, and for past data sets on uptake to be made publicly available again.
The Healthy Start paper voucher scheme finished at the end of March and we remain concerned that uptake numbers are low, which means thousands of families are missing out on a vital source of food. We note that, despite NHS BSA quoting numbers on uptake since digitisation of the scheme, no data has yet been published to verify claims. Data sets on uptake in previous years, previously available online, have recently been taken down.
4. We want a response, in full, to that letter and the requests contained in it.
As yet, we have had no response to the open letter we sent to Health Secretary Sajid Javid, signed by over 150 people and organisations, including the Royal Society for Public Health, the Royal College of Midwives, and several Directors of Public Health.
Cecily Spelling, Food Poverty campaigner says:
“It is fantastic news that the application process has been fixed and payments will be backdated. Families have been struggling and being turned down for their Healthy Start has laid on even more stress during this cost of living crisis. But the Healthy Start Facebook page is still full of complaints about cards not working and calls to the helpline going unanswered. We need the Department of Health to keep working hard to fix this scheme. We would like to see a £5m promotional push to raise awareness, auto enrolment to remove the stress of application and for the scheme to be extended to all families on Universal Credit and with no recourse to public funds.”
We were contacted by a healthcare professional in Kent who says:
“Please accept my thanks on behalf of struggling professionals and the many tens of thousands of people – mostly women – who are presently missing out on income they are owed and which they need in these harsh times.'
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