Struggling parents are having to wait more than a year for vouchers to buy healthy food for their children after the relaunch of an NHS scheme was plagued by IT problems.
The Healthy Start scheme, which helps low-income parents and pregnant women pay for fruit, vegetables, milk and formula, has been misfiring since it began the switch away from paper vouchers in October 2021. As it moved from a paper coupon format to a prepaid card system, parents who had been using the old scheme were rejected for the new one without explanation.
The botched digitisation means thousands of eligible households had their applications declined. They are entitled to backdated payments but that process is beset with delays, with some families waiting more than a year.
NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), the arms-length body of the Department of Health and Social Care responsible for the scheme, said it was in the process of contacting 46,000 people who “might have been affected by this issue”, adding “not all of them will be due a backdated payment”.
The NHSBSA said the average wait between an applicant’s original application and receiving the backdated funds was 254 days, as of 29 November last year. The longest delay recorded was 405 days.
About 550,000 mothers who are pregnant or who have children aged three or under are in theory eligible for the scheme. It is worth £4.25 for each week of pregnancy from 10 weeks, then £8.50 a week for babies up to one year old, and £4.25 a week for children up to four years old.
Jonathan Pauling, the chief executive of the Alexandra Rose Charity, which runs its own voucher scheme in some regions, said the Healthy Start scheme offered vital support to families and their children across the country, and “any delay in receiving this support means those children will likely have less fruit and veg 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 afford healthy fresh food and baby formula for their youngest children. The ongoing issues with the digitisation of the scheme need to be fixed urgently,” he said.
The money was previously handed out as paper vouchers that could be redeemed at supermarkets, but these were phased out by 31 March last year and replaced by a prepaid card system, which is topped up every four weeks.
In a statement the NHSBSA said: “Until we have had a response from all those we are contacting, it is not possible to say how many people are owed a backdated payment or what the total amount owed will be.
“The calculations for backdated payments 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 apologise for the time it is taking to resolve this issue. We would like to assure beneficiaries that we are working on this as a priority.”
Healthy Start, which was launched in 2006, is available to universal credit claimants who earn £408 or less a month and child tax credit claimants with an annual income of £16,190 or less. People on legacy benefits including income support, jobseeker’s allowance, pension credit and working tax credit can also claim. Campaigners have also called for the value of the benefit to rise in line with soaring prices. According to analysis by First Steps Nutrition Trust, between August 2021 and November 2022, the cost of infant formula has increased by as much as 23% – more than double the average increase in food prices.
The current Healthy Start allowance is now not enough to cover the full cost of any infant formulas on the market, according to the Food Foundation.
“The government needs to act immediately to tackle the current issues with the scheme including ensuring that the value keeps up with soaring food prices, families owed money are paid promptly and the ongoing issues with digitisation are addressed,” said Isabel Hughes, the Food Foundation’s policy engagement manager.