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43,000 households ‘miss out’ on Healthy Start scheme

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Tens of thousands of households previously in receipt of paper NHS Healthy Start vouchers have failed to re-enrol after a major shake-up to the scheme.

Latest data as of 18 October 2022 revealed there were an estimated 42,954 households previously in receipt of paper Healthy Start vouchers who haven’t successfully applied for the NHS prepaid card scheme.

This figure was actually corrected from the original 2,954 households quoted.

It comes after a Commons question by Labour South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck who asked the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care how many beneficiaries of the paper Healthy Start vouchers have not re-enrolled via the online registration system.

In response, Conservative MP Neil O’Brien – the parliamentary under-secretary for the Department of Health and Social Care originally quoted the lower figure provided by the NHS Business Services Authority (NHS BSA) which delivers the scheme, before his answer was corrected.

Households in receipt of paper Healthy Start vouchers started moving to the prepaid card scheme in September 2021, before the paper voucher scheme closed in March 2022.

The NHS BSA said there are a number of reasons why families may not have re-enrolled, including if a child has turned four and they are therefore no longer eligible. Changes to income or benefits entitlement could also impact this number.

However, Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said it’s vital struggling families don’t miss out, adding that the government should promote uptake particularly amid the current cost-of-living crisis.

What is the Healthy Start scheme?

The Healthy Start scheme allows eligible people to get help buying healthy food and milk and gives free vitamins for pregnant and breastfeeding mums, as well as for babies and young children too.

The scheme is available to some low-income households receiving a ‘qualifying benefit’. These include Universal Credit, Child Tax Credit, Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Pension Credit (which includes the child addition) and Working Tax Credit.

You can also apply if you are under 18 and pregnant, even if you don’t receive any benefits.

It’s available to households with at least one child under four, or pregnant women (at least 10 weeks).

It currently pays £4.25 each week of pregnancy, then a higher £8.50 a week for children from birth to one year, before it goes back to £4.25 for children aged between one and four. Once a child turns four, or you no longer meet the eligibility criteria, the payments will stop.

If you’re eligible, you’ll be sent a Healthy Start card with money on it that can be spent in most shops which accept Mastercard payments (it can’t be used online, however).

The money – payments are made every four weeks – can then be spent buying fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables, fresh, dried and tinned pulses, as well as cow’s milk or infant formula based on cow’s milk.

Previously the scheme worked with paper vouchers. However, you can sign up for the prepaid card via the Healthy Start website.

‘Healthy Start should rise in line with inflation’

Hussain, said: “The cost-of-living crisis is pushing even more struggling families into dire situations. Our frontline services tell us that parents are having to make the desperate choice between heating and eating, unable to afford the basic essentials.

“This scheme helps support disadvantaged parents with the cost of fundamentals like fruit and vegetables and baby formula, which help ease some of the financial pressures whilst promoting healthy nutrition in the early years.

“It is essential that the technical problems with the system are addressed, and families do not miss out. The government can start by switching to an auto-enrolment scheme and invest in an awareness raising campaign to promote uptake. It is also vital that the value of Healthy Start vouchers rises in line with inflation.”

The inflation figure for October came in at 11.1%, a 40-year high, according to the Office for National Statistics. This is up from 10.1% in the previous month.

‘More than £2m has gone to families this month’

The NHS BSA said more than 500,000 invitations were sent to people on the paper voucher scheme, including leaflets and letters to households, emails and text messages during the transition period; and those who continued not to apply received up to seven direct communications.

It is understood that around 20% of paper vouchers went unused before the scheme moved to the prepaid card scheme.

It added that a national communications campaign was also delivered to raise awareness of the scheme.

A spokesperson, said: “Since the NHS BSA took over the scheme, more than 180,000 households that didn’t previously get paper vouchers successfully applied to the prepaid card scheme, meaning more money is going to families who didn’t get it before. This month, over £2.2m has gone to families who didn’t previously get paper vouchers.”

They added: “The NHS BSA is now focusing on raising awareness of the scheme nationally rather than just amongst those who previously got paper vouchers.”

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