Nikki Bond, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Health and disability benefits aren't generous enough to support vulnerable people through the cost of living crisis

10 February 2022

Living with health problems often comes with additional costs – from the cost of medication to paying for transport to medical appointments. Health and disability benefits are intended to provide for the extra costs people face as a result of their health condition – they are a vital lifeline for thousands of disabled people. 

That is especially true now, given that people receiving health and disability benefits are among those at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis. Already struggling with low incomes exacerbated by the pandemic, and now faced with soaring food and energy costs, concerns around how people in receipt of benefits will make ends meet should be central to policy decision-making.  

However a report out last week, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (the government department responsible for the benefits system), but only published due to an intervention by the Work and Pensions Committee – showed how the vital lifeline of health and disability benefits is failing. People in receipt of such benefits, have high levels of unmet health needs, due to low benefit rates and problems in assessing the needs of people with hidden disabilities. Subsequently, people with mental health problems face difficulties meeting the costs of their additional health needs.

Difficulties meeting the cost of your health needs

Last week’s  report details the additional health needs of people with mental health problems. These can include care and support needs around monitoring and reminders for medication; increased costs associated with well known side effects of medication that can cause rapid weight gain; help with chores around the home due to fatigue or lack of motivation; emotional support to travel on public transport or pay for private taxis; and essential internet and telephone access which keeps people connected to the outside world when they may have difficulties leaving the house. 

Health and disability benefits are crucial to ensuring that people with mental health problems can afford to meet these additional needs that arise because of their disability. Paying for these additional costs are often essential to keeping people safe and creating the right conditions for recovery.  And, people with mental health problems are more likely than the rest of the population to rely on health and disability benefits, such as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – to make ends meet.

“[I’m] unable to afford new clothes that fit and are comfortable. To accommodate changing physical health. Unwilling to leave the house. Isolation. Depression. Despair.” Expert by experience

But due to the low rates of health and disability benefits, and even before the current cost of living crisis, people had already stripped back to the bare essentials with additional care and support needs having fallen by the wayside. Now people are facing choices between heating and eating. For many, finding the money to pay for health related needs will be impossible.

Failures to adequately support the people who need it most

This report adds to the overwhelming body of evidence that the value of benefits is low. Most working-age benefits have not kept pace with rising prices or earnings over the last decade and consequently people are often unable to meet essential living costs such as food and utility bills. But they’re unable to meet the costs of their health needs too. 

“If you are on sickness benefits then you have no money to manage & someone who sets the amount should live on it for a month to see if it’s feasible!” Expert by experience 

Our research over the last year has consistently found that people with mental health problems are having to cut back on essentials to make ends meet. A third of people with mental health problems who had taken out new credit in the last 12 months had done so to pay for essential living costs, such as food, heating and housing. Yet this report shows that these final cuts to basic living costs come in addition to having already cut back on attending to their health needs.

Overhauling the health and disability benefits system

People in receipt of health and disability benefits, who are unable to work because of their disability, will not be served by high profile new campaigns to get more people into work. To begin to address the unmet needs that people with disabilities, particularly those with mental health problems face, the government should raise the rates of health and disability benefits to ensure that they are sufficient to meet people’s day-to-day living costs and provide cover for the cost of people’s health needs too. 

But changes to meet the needs of people with mental health problems and other disabilities must go beyond raising benefit rates. The government needs to commit in their review of health and disability benefits and the forthcoming White Paper not just to tinker at the edges, but to ambitiously strive to ensure that people with disabilities, who are unable to work, are able to have good living standards.  This means their health and disability needs are met. To this end, the government should ensure health and disability assessments are designed in a way that accurately captures the day-to-day challenges people with hidden disabilities face and ensure benefit award levels and rates reflect and provide for the costs of living with a mental health problem. 

Click here for more information on the changes we’d like to see to health and disability benefits.