I have HIV and a number of other chronic health conditions including living with a mental health diagnosis. Despite taking medications, these conditions still cause a negative impact on my ability to contribute to society and engage as much as I would like to. It has been a constant struggle for me to reach a point in my journey with HIV to be able to say that I feel well enough to give something back to my community. I have experienced discrimination, stigma, live on the poverty line and feel the impact of social isolation due to my health conditions. I receive a welfare payment and reside in government housing. After my rent and bills are paid I am left with barely enough money to feed myself. I am wary of disclosing my HIV status due to the negative attitudes that I have faced in the past and tend to keep to myself leading to further isolation.
Regular monitoring and effective treatment of my HIV has now given me an undetectable viral load. I take anti-depressants for my depression. I also experience debilitating episodes of anxiety compounded by agoraphobia which I manage by practicing regular breathing and mind focus exercises. Managing these multiple health conditions is hard work. If I wasn’t to take my HIV medications this would open me up to the onslaught of opportunistic infections. Without taking my ‘happy’ pill I run the risk of sliding back into a severe state of depression and if I don’t regularly do my breathing and focus exercises I am unable to leave my home.
Recently I made the decision to return to casual work after many years of volunteering in the HIV sector. This new position requires me to work for eight hours per week which is a perfect fit for my current state of health. I now get to work with people and change lives in a positive way.
I discovered that people living with HIV are faced with a new burden. What I encountered in returning to work was some staff in positions of authority in commonwealth government agencies apply policies which negatively impacts people like me. These are people with HIV who are living on a disability support payment (DSP) and looking to return to some form of paid or voluntary work. In some cases these people have been on a DSP for longer than ten years and lack the confidence or skills to return successfully to the workforce and are looking for meaningful support to do this.
When I went in to the Centrelink office in Darlinghurst to inform them of my return to casual work I was told that I would have to have my payment reviewed. This was despite that I was not returning to more than eight hours work per week. I raised my objections with the staff member but was bluntly told that my information was incorrect, it was standard policy to review the payment and to reassess anyone on DSP for a return to work assessment and applies to anyone who enquires about returning to volunteer or paid work regardless of the hours involved. This process triggered a very stressful and anxious time for me.
For the assessment I was required to have two healthcare providers to write support letters to take with me for my review and was faced with an almost two week wait before I would know if I was still eligible to receive a DSP. I approached David Crawford, Treatments Officer, from Positive Life NSW to act as my advocate and attend my review. The Centrelink Workplace Assessment Officer after reading my support letters and on reviewing my file was genuinely puzzled as to why I was asked to participate in this assessment process. We were informed that the information I was given when notifying Centrelink of my intention to return to casual work for eight hours a week was incorrect.
The policy for this type of return to work assessment applies to people on DSP 35 years of age or under and over 14 hours of work per week. She apologised for the inconvenience this process had caused me.
Whilst I am thankful that my benefit would not be jeopardised by my return to work, I am disappointed that people wanting to enhance their life are placed in a position of experiencing needless anxiety. I am also embarrassed and annoyed that I had to impose this on two very busy healthcare workers to provide the unnecessary documents.