Today I joined Martin Lewis from Money Saving Expert to deliver a letter signed by 2,000 people to the Department of Health. The letter demands that the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt ends the unfair system of charging some people with mental illnesses for the medical documents they need to prove they are ill to their creditors. The #stopthecharge campaign wants to highlight the damage this charge does, and to stop the GPs who put a price on these necessary documents.
Many people with a mental health condition struggle with their finances. For some, it means sliding into debt. People with mental illness are three times more likely to be in debt. This may add to the pressures and anxieties which are triggers for the mental illness. It can become a vicious spiral of money worries, illness and growing debt.
If someone needs help to manage their debts because of a mental health condition, they will usually be asked for medical proof by their creditors. Without it, companies owed money will press ahead with debt recovery, seizure of assets, and sometimes even eviction. With proof of illness, creditors will often offer manageable repayment terms.
Thanks to campaigning by Citizens' Advice and mental health charities, a single, simple form is available which is filled in by a GP or mental health professional to provide medical proof. Yet new research highlights that in a third of cases, people are being charged to receive this doctor's note.
This is a scandal. Even a 'small' charge of £20 can add to the burden of debt. The research, by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, shows that the very process that should be helping people in financial difficulty is in effect adding fuel to the fire.
There are many examples of the system making matters worse for someone with a mental health condition. Here is just one example. Ian writes:
'I was on basic Employment and Support Allowance, waiting for a benefits assessment to find out if they thought I was fit for work, so I was on really low benefits. Paying £20 for the doctor's note had a really big impact, it was a big chunk of the money I had left that week. I didn't expect them to charge me. I was going to go to the shop after the appointment to get food, but after the doctor's, I didn't have any money left.'
I have written to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Prime Minister to highlight this unfair practice, asked questions in Parliament, and added my name to the campaign to remove all charges for this vital document. All the evidence suggests that if someone with a mental illness can stabilise their finances, they stand a much better chance of a swifter recovery. That's good news for the individual and their family, and it also saves the NHS the costs of ongoing treatment.
There are many forms, for example death certificates, for which GPs do not charge. I believe the Health Secretary should add this proof of mental illness form to the list. Most GPs do not charge for it. I hope Jeremy Hunt will listen to campaigners, and stop the postcode lottery where some people have to pay for the form.
You can add your voice to this important campaign here.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health