Distressed parents are having to wait more than a year for vouchers to buy healthy food for their children after the restart of the NHS scheme has been plagued by IT problems.
The Healthy Start plan, which helps low-income parents and pregnant women pay for fruit, vegetables, milk and formula, has been unsuccessful since it began shifting away from paper vouchers in October 2021. It moved from a paper voucher format to a prepaid card system format. Parents who were using the old system for the new system were rejected without explanation.
Failed digitization means thousands of eligible families have had their applications rejected. They are entitled to retroactive payments but the process is riddled with delays, with some families waiting over a year.
The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), the Department of Health and Social Care umbrella body responsible for the scheme, said it was in the process of contacting 46,000 people “who may have been affected by this issue”, adding “not all of them will be payable retroactively”.
The average wait between an applicant’s original application and receiving the backdated funds was 254 days, NHSBSA said, as of November 29 last year. The longest recorded delay was 405 days.
About 550,000 mothers who are pregnant or have children three years of age or younger are theoretically eligible for this system. It amounts to £4.25 for each week of pregnancy from 10 weeks, then £8.50 per week for children up to one year of age, and £4.25 per week for children up to four years of age.
Jonathan Bowling, chief executive of the Alexandra Rose charity, which runs its own voucher scheme in some areas, said the Healthy Start scheme provides vital support to families and their children across the country, and “any delay in receiving this support means these children are likely to be They have fewer fruits and vegetables in their diet at a critical time in their development.”
“During a cost-of-living crisis, this is particularly unacceptable when the Healthy Start Scheme is needed more than ever to help families provide fresh, healthy food and infant formula for their young children. Persistent problems with the digitization of the system need to be resolved urgently,” he said.
The money was previously handed out as paper vouchers that could be redeemed at supermarkets, but these were phased out by March 31 last year and replaced by a prepaid card system, which is added every four weeks.
NHSBSA said in a statement: “Until we have a response from all those we contact, it cannot be determined how many people are owed late payments or the total amount owed.
“The old payment calculations are complex with many variables, including people moving in and out of eligibility and different payment amounts based on pregnancy and children’s ages.
“We appreciate that this is frustrating for those affected and we apologize for the time it has taken to resolve this issue. We would like to assure beneficiaries that we are working on this as a priority.”
Healthy Start, launched in 2006, is available to Universal Credit claimants earning £408 or less per month and Child Tax Credit claimants with an annual income of £16,190 or less. People who receive heritage benefits including income support, job seeker’s allowance, pension credit, and work tax credit can also claim. Activists also called for an increase in the value of the utility in line with the price hike. According to an analysis by the First Steps Nutrition Trust, between August 2021 and November 2022, the cost of infant formula increased by up to 23% – more than double the average increase in food prices.
The current healthy starting allowance is now not enough to cover the full cost of any infant formula on the market, according to the Food Foundation.
“The government needs to act immediately to address existing issues with the scheme, including ensuring value keeps up with rising food prices, paying families owed money promptly and tackling persistent issues with digitization,” said Isabel Hughes, Food Foundation. Director of Political Participation.