'We didn't pursue Centrelink because it was too difficult with cancer'

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Dealing with cancer is hard enough but facing the financial challenges adds to the pressure. The Cancer Council helps people by connecting them with financial and legal experts who volunteer their time and expertise through the organisation's pro bono program.

WealthPartners Financial Solutions adviser Bill Rainger has been providing his advice and support on a pro bono basis as part of Cancer Council's pro bono program since 2012.

"Generally, we find out quickly what super or insurance people affected by cancer might have. The extent of their illness will dictate what benefits they can access and when," says Rainger.

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"If the cancer patient is terminally ill, we look at accessing life insurance under a terminal illness benefit; if they are totally and permanently disabled, we look at claiming under TPD cover and for those clients who are unable to work and have income protection or temporary salary continuance cover, we identify what benefits they are eligible to claim for.

"The majority of cancers will satisfy the claim conditions for trauma insurance for those fortunate enough to have this cover."

Rainger says age also plays an important part in what superannuation benefits people can access.

"Depending on your medical condition, access to superannuation and insurance benefits under age 57 may be subject to preservation rules or tax on lump sum withdrawal. As a simple example, a 40-year-old with a non-terminal cancer can probably only access up to $10,000 from super under financial hardship but possibly more on compassionate grounds. Note that payments are subject to tax."

Working with insurance companies involves a lot of administration and paperwork. The role of the financial adviser is to assist the cancer patient in completing all claims requirements.

"A good adviser will assess the debt position and build a plan to manage or discharge the debt as soon as practical," says Rainger.

"If the client is under financial distress, we can liaise with the institution's financial hardship team.

"Outcomes may include suspension of repayments (albeit interest will continue), reduction or removal of interest, or in exceptional circumstances, forgiveness of debts. If no resolution can be agreed to, we assist with lodging a complaint with AFCA."

Blue Mountains residents Carol and Marty Kemister were both diagnosed with cancer around the same time; Carol first with breast cancer and later with uterine cancer, and Marty with prostate cancer.

Both Carol and Marty were in their early 50s when diagnosed.

For Marty, the diagnosis and treatment cost him his job as he needed to take early retirement, while Carol had already taken redundancy earlier and was happily bringing up two teenagers.

"We were starting to struggle and I was looking for work because I realised we wouldn't be able to sustain me being off forever," says Carol.

"It took me a while because of my age and I didn't get a position until I had been treated for breast cancer, which in a way was good because I didn't have the pressure of explaining to people when I couldn't come in to work.

"We didn't pursue Centrelink because it was too difficult with cancer and other things we were coping with."

Cancer Council referred the Kemisters to financial adviser Tony Tanti who helped them with their financial planning for free, writing a plan for them.

Carol says: "It was so refreshing having someone to guide us through it, and it also took over all the worry.

"He spoke to other agencies, he spoke to Centrelink on our behalf, spoke to our bank and got us some relief on our mortgage.

"Basically, having somewhere to recover was one of the major concerns - we didn't want to be booted out of our home when were at our most vulnerable and he's been backing us up with advice ever since."

Carol adds Tony was a great help with rules around retirement and accessing superannuation.

"When I was paid out from my job, I was two years shy of being able to access my super; I waited two years and then I found out the age had moved again and that's when the cancer happened," says Carol.

"Without talking to Tony I probably would never have been able to access that super.

"Regarding full-time retirement, Tony was able to talk us through the best ways to do it because we were unaware of some of the things that were available to us.

"There is lots of help available, which many people don't find out about until they've made mistakes."

Some of the available help includes:

  • IPTAAS (Isolated Patients Travel and Accommodation Assistance Scheme) - A program for travel for people living more than 100km from the treatment centre. This scheme is NSW-based. In Victoria, the scheme is VPTAS, SA has its own IPTAAS, Qld has PTSS, WA has PATS and Tasmania has PTAS.
  • Medication - Filling prescriptions at hospitals is more common because there is more chance of finding what's required and at a cheaper rate due to federal funding. You need to submit a claim and have two years to do it. There is also a Medicare safety net for medication over a certain value.
  • Community support - It's not just financial support that helps. For Carol and Marty, the community around them has been very discreet and good at helping when they need it.
  • Cancer Council's Information and Support Line 13 11 20 - At the core of Cancer Council's support services is its information and support line, which helps anyone impacted by cancer by connecting them with an experienced cancer nurse or health professional. Anyone can use the service - not just people who have been diagnosed with cancer - from a member of the general public with a concern about cancer risk, someone who has recently been diagnosed, to family members and colleagues of people affected by cancer, and health professionals.  

This article is part of a collaboration between Cancer Council NSW and Money magazine to explore the key financial issues impacting Australians affected by cancer. To view more articles on this topic, click here

If you are a lawyer, financial adviser, accountant or HR professional interested in volunteering through Cancer Council's Pro Bono Program, please contact the team at [email protected]. If you have any questions or concerns about cancer, please call Cancer Council's 13 11 20 Information and Support Service. If you would like to donate to help Cancer Council's services offering support to cancer patients in need, head to cancercouncil.com.au/support20.

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Julia Newbould is the managing editor of Money magazine and is one of the hosts of the Friends With Money podcast. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.