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Australian woman with rare heart condition forced to fight for her Disability Support Pension

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‘Ronnie’ has a rare condition called tachy-brady syndrome, causing her heart to beat too fast, too slow and to be interrupted by long pauses.

Despite this, Ronnie has been told that she can work a full time job.

“I am just bedridden — I can’t do anything,” Ronnie told ABC Newcastle.

Five cardiologists have found Ronnie unfit for work, however, she has been denied the Disability Support Pension (DSP) for four years.

Prior to 2012, a medical diagnosis was all that was required for a person to move from what was then the Newstart program to the DSP.

After that, a functional assessment process using levels of disability was introduced.

That spread the level of disability across separate tables, making it more difficult to qualify.

Also, a person’s disability must be fully treated or stabilised — meaning that it is permanent and will not improve through professional care.

Ronnie said although she told she could work 30 hours a week, although her doctors fervently disagreed.

Ronnie said she tried to put the hours in so she would be approved for government payments.

“It has been hell — I was just so desperate,” she said.

Mid North Coast Legal Centre disability law solicitor Kylie Hyde said a big obstacle for DSP applicants is locating a doctor who knew what wording to use to meet the programs criteria.

“It is actually not that based on your condition — it is based on the impairments to your function and a continuing inability to work as a result of those functional impairments,” she said.

Accessing the DSP is not the only challenge.

A Queensland woman, who wished not to be identified, told the ABC she was removed from the DSP after being on it for 13 years.

She has post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.

“What happened is I was reviewed in 2016 and it was literally a couple of months after a suicide attempt, so my review was done quite poorly,” the woman said.

“I missed my interview and my pension was cancelled — I was no longer eligible.

“So that took me on a two-year journey to try and get it back

“That journey took my mental health to a whole new level.”

After constant calls for a review of the entire program, a Senate inquiry was announced in May 2021 into the purpose, intent and adequacy of the DSP.

In its submission, the Australian Department of Social Services espoused all the benefits of the DSP assessment process.

“Decisions on medical eligibility for all DSP claims are informed by assessments undertaken by Services Australia, who employ qualified health and allied health professionals,” the department said.

It also said its process quickly determines people who are obviously ineligible for DSP.

In Ronnie’s case, it took going all the way to a tribunal to validate that the assessors were incorrect in her denial.

Although she had a win by eventually getting the pension, her story does not have a happy ending.

Ronnie received a pacemaker last year to improve her daily life — and was told she has five years to live.

“I am at risk of heart attack and stroke every single day,” the 54-year-old said.

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