Wellington cook forced to rely on charity to get by after injury robs her of ability to work or walk

Young says she's surviving on as little as $300 a fortnight to cover her expenses.
Young says she's surviving on as little as $300 a fortnight to cover her expenses. Photo credit: Getty Images

A Wellington cook has been forced to seek out food parcels and money from family to get by after ACC refused to pay her out for an injury that left her unable to work.

Marcy Young has had back problems for well over a decade but things suddenly kicked up a gear in late 2021, becoming so bad she couldn't work unaided and forcing her to leave her job.

And she's found help hard to come by since then, with both ACC and the Ministry for Social Development (MSD) unwilling or unable to provide her the monetary support she's desperate for.

After initially rejecting her claim, ACC has now agreed to investigate again whether her injury is related to prior back issues, which will determine if she's eligible for a payout - but Young says it's taking too long, and in the meantime she's struggling to get by.

Young says she's surviving on as little as $300 a fortnight to cover her expenses and has been forced to take the "degrading" step of falling back on charities and family for help.

'The specialist was in disbelief'

Young's troubles started in October last year, when she felt a "funny feeling" in her rectum.

An MRI uncovered an issue in her lower back, which worried her as she'd had problems with her back in the past dating as far back as 2010.

She organised to see a specialist but was forced to wait over a month for the appointment, at which point she was finally able to discuss the results of the MRI and get a steroid injection.

However what had initially been a funny feeling had by the time of her December 10 check-up transformed into an agonising injury. A week later it was clear the steroid injection hadn't worked and her back pain had become so bad she was no longer able to drive nor wold without assistance.

Again she called up the specialist, but with COVID-19's effect on New Zealand's health system being felt keenly, the earliest she could be seen was February 18. In the meantime her condition was continuing to deteriorate and on January 10, she was forced to stop working.

"When I got to that appointment, [the specialist] was just in disbelief," Young told Newshub.

"He was asking, 'When did this happen? What did you do after I saw you in December?' He examined me again and said, 'No, this is not the lower back, this is the upper back'."

Immediately he transferred Young to Hutt Hospital, where they carried out more tests and x-rays. By that night she'd learned she would need to be flown to Christchurch for surgery.

"They told me there was significant compression on my spine and they needed to act quickly," she explained. "I came very close to losing my ability to walk, but thank God for their fast action in getting the surgery done."

While she overcame what could have been a life-changing health scare, Young still faces a long journey to full recovery. She's been told everything could take as long as two years to return to normal.

That timeframe is perhaps not a major surprise when you consider she's had screws inserted in her back, four vertebrae stabilised and nerve and muscle damage.

"I am walking, but I can only manage an hour, maybe a little over an hour [a day]," Young said. "Any more than that then I'm in tears because I'm so sore."

'I'm crying all the time'

Despite the pain and the impact her injury has had on her lifestyle, Young has found help hard to come by. Requests for financial assistance from both ACC and the MSD have so far come to very little.

After the injury stripped her of her ability to work, Young asked ACC to pay weekly compensation for her degenerative back issues, arguing they were related to her initial back issue from 2010, which she already has a claim accepted for.

ACC chief operating officer Gabrielle O'Connor told Newshub this request was initially declined because the "medical evidence did not support a link between her current incapacity and the 2010 back sprain".

"Marcy has requested this decision be reviewed, and to support this we are funding a report from a specialist of Marcy’s choosing to further investigate any causal link," O'Connor said.

"We will consider the information from her specialist when we receive it."

Young says if the review is successful, ACC will cover 80 percent of her wages - a result that would take her financial hardship away instantaneously.

But Young says the whole process is taking too long.

"I'm annoyed, I'm disappointed, but I try not to let it get to me because I'm thinking of my health," she said. "I don't know where I'm going to find myself [when ACC makes its decision]. I'm trying to look for a good outcome - but there's a chance there might not be a good outcome.

"I know I'm not the only one that's going through things like this. But it's about how do they support people that have been working all these years, and now can't help the situation they're in and don't get any funding or any support?

"I've worked all my life; I've never abused the system; I've never taken more than what I needed from the Government; and if I needed to pay something back, I pay it back. I really don't know how this system works."

After the severity and recovery timeline for her injury became clear, Young also reached out to the MSD for help in March.

However because her husband is still earning a salary, the Government agency couldn't provide her with any money - instead she was eligible for just three food vouchers worth a combined $550 between April 27 and May 19.

"We acknowledge the difficult circumstances Mrs Young faces," Gagau Annandale-Stone, MSD's regional commissioner for Wellington, told Newshub. "However, her husband's income impacts the financial assistance available to her.

"Taking household income into account is a longstanding principle underpinning New Zealand social security legislation. It is based on the notion that spouses and de facto partners owe primary obligations of support to each other, and the state's support obligations are secondary.

"We are required to take all income received by either spouse (or de facto partner) into account when assessing eligibility for a benefit. There is no discretion to waive income tests for benefits."

While Young didn't divulge her husband's salary, she said it was well under a $88,000 threshold for one type of financial support she enquired about with them. She said because of their bills and other expenses, she's left with $300 a fortnight to live on, which "just isn't enough".

As a result, she's been forced to lean on her family for money and rely on the generosity of charities when she's become really desperate.

"I've had to phone up Salvation Army for a food parcel - it's degrading, you know?"

The lack of disposable income has resulted in a major psychological shift.

"I haven't spent a cent on myself. As a female, you want to go out for a coffee or whatever, but I think 'how am I going to pay for a coffee?' I'm so careful how I spend my money - and not even my money but money my family gives to me. I think twice before I do something for myself.

"When I went to the Salvation Army food bank, they told me you can select whatever you want. And I saw this slab of chocolate and I asked 'am I allowed to have it?' because I was thinking I don't deserve it because there's something else I could've taken in its place.

"There's so many other mums who feel this way," she continued through tears, "and they're too scared to come forward, too scared to say that they're struggling."

Young told Newshub she's continuing to "play it one day at a time", but sometimes the emotional toll of her predicament becomes too much to bear.

"I've been crying all the time, but I try to do it when the family's not here because I don't want to put that on them," she said.

"Even though I take sleeping tablets, I don't sleep. I'm up at two in the morning trying to figure out what's my next move - 'I need to be ahead for the next bill payment, I need to be ahead for shopping'.

"And I don't want to burden my family with this because they're already giving me stuff, they're already giving me money. I can't just be taking from them."

All Young wants now is for ACC to approve her claim. She can't fathom what will happen if it doesn't come through, as she knows it could be two years before she's ready to return to work.

"I just want them to give me what I'm entitled to. I'm not here to have a go at the Government, I just want support.

"There's so many other people who just couldn't be bothered to look for a job - they look to the Government for support, they're healthy as, but the Government made it so easy for them [to get financial support]. And to hell with us hard-working people.

"It's just messed up."

Asked about Young's remarks, MSD spokesperson Annandale-Stone said financial support was analysed on "a case-by-case basis" that is "unique to that person and their needs".

"When someone comes to us for help, we look at their individual circumstances, consider what support they may need and determine what they may be eligible for."

She said there's a range of assistance available to New Zealanders who are experiencing hardship, such as the Winter Energy Payment and the Cost of Living Payment, as well as a Working For Families boost and increases to benefit and pension payments.

"Last year in October, and again in February, the Government lifted the income limits for people who need help to pay for essentials in recognition of the impact of COVID-19 on our communities," she said.

"The latest trends we've seen around hardship assistance can be found in our Monthly Benefits Update, including demand for jobseeker support, accommodation supplements, and special needs grants for things like food."