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Cancer and your finances


Reducing your debts and expenses


One way to help balance your budget is to look at all your debts and expenses, and explore ways to reduce them. Although it can feel overwhelming to face a pile of bills, there are options available if you are having trouble paying them.

You may find it helpful to ask a trusted family member or friend to help you make any phone calls or fill out any forms, particularly if you are dealing with the side effects of cancer treatment. Some organisations may ask you to provide proof of why you are in hardship, such as a letter from your hospital, GP or treatment team.

Council rates

It may be tempting to ignore your council rates, but if you do not pay them on time, the council is entitled to charge you interest on the amount you owe.

Local council rate assistance or rebate policy

Many local councils have a rate assistance or rebate policy for people in financial hardship. You may be able to:

  • claim a concession rate – available to holders of a Centrelink concession card or Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veteran Gold Card
  • negotiate a payment plan to pay your rates in smaller instalments
  • write off interest charges on overdue rates
  • defer part or all of your rates and charges for a set period of time.

Contact your local council to find out about the help they offer ratepayers. Most councils will ask you to put your request in writing.

 

Education expenses

If cancer has caused you financial hardship, you may be able to come to some arrangement regarding school fees or it may be possible to delay (defer) repayment of your education (HECS–HELP) debt. Special grants can help young people to continue their education.

Negotiate school fees

Fees are not compulsory in public schools, but it’s a good idea to contact the school to discuss payment of voluntary contributions. Many private and independent schools are willing to make arrangements for parents experiencing unexpected hardship who cannot pay school fees in the short term. Ask for written confirmation of any changes you negotiate.

As soon as you become aware that your financial situation has changed, get in touch with the school principal to discuss your options. These may include:

  • investigating scholarships or bursaries that cover school fees and other expenses
  • negotiating a payment arrangement
  • requesting a temporary suspension of your fees.

Apply for an education grant

Young people affected by cancer may be able to access special grants to help them pay for education and training:

Defer HECS–HELP debts

You may have a HECS–HELP debt under the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). If you are having trouble repaying the debt, you can apply to the Australian Tax Office (ATO) to defer your repayments or pay by instalments.

You will need to show that making the repayments would cause serious hardship (that is, would leave you unable to provide food, clothing, accommodation, medical treatment, education or other necessities for you or your family) or that there are other special reasons. The ATO may also ask you to provide details of your income and expenses, and a copy of your most recent pay slip.

To defer your HECS–HELP repayments, complete the application form and return it to the ATO. If your application is successful, you won’t need to make any repayments until the next financial year. If you want to defer your repayments for another year, you will need to reapply.

Income tax

If you owe tax and are concerned about being able to pay it on time, contact the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) on 13 11 42 as soon as possible. It is still important to lodge your tax return or business activity statements (BAS) on time, even if you know you can’t pay the tax. This avoids late lodgement penalties and shows you are trying to meet your obligations.

Depending on your circumstances, the ATO may decide to give you more time to pay or agree to one of the following measures:

Pay your tax debt by instalments

If you have a tax debt and you cannot pay it in full, you may be able to pay by weekly, fortnightly or monthly instalments. 

Depending on the amount you owe, there are different ways to make a new payment arrangement with the ATO. The ATO’s online payment plan estimator can help you work out how to pay your debt. You can also ask a financial counsellor to help you.

Ask for interest charges to be reduced

The ATO charges interest on unpaid tax debts. This general interest charge (GIC) applies from the original due date, even if you enter into a payment plan. If you are experiencing financial difficulties because of cancer, you can ask for some or all of the GIC to be reduced or cancelled. This is known as the remission of GIC.

Contact the ATO on 13 11 42 and explain why your payment was delayed and any steps you took to avoid the delay. For larger amounts, you may be asked to put your request in writing.

Apply for a release of your tax debt

You can apply to have some types of tax debt permanently removed (released). You will need to show that paying the debt would cause you serious hardship. This means you would be unable to provide food, housing, medical care or other essentials for yourself or your family.

Use the ATO’s debt release tool to work out if you are eligible to apply for a release of your tax debt and to get the application form. You will need to provide pay slips and bank statements. You can also call 13 11 42 to discuss your options.

 

Loans and credit cards

If you are worried about keeping up with repayments on your loans (such as home or car loans) or credit cards, don’t wait until you have fallen behind. Take action early, before a lender or credit card provider begins legal proceedings. If debt collectors are contacting you, ask a financial counsellor for advice. 

Try to avoid using credit cards to pay your bills and other living expenses. Credit cards often charge high rates of interest, which means that if you only make the minimum payment each month, the amount you owe will keep getting bigger.

Talk to your loan provider

Let the organisation you owe money to (the creditor) know that you are experiencing financial hardship because you or a family member has cancer. The creditor may agree that you can:

  • stop making repayments for a short time, such as 6–12 months
  • make lower repayments for a short time
  • change to interest-only repayments for a specified period
  • pay by instalments
  • reduce the total amount owing
  • extend how long you have to pay the loan (the loan term).

Making a payment arrangement as soon as possible can protect your credit rating. If you apply for a loan in the future, the lender will usually check your credit report before approving the loan.

A credit report details your credit history and rating, including every time you have applied for credit or not made a repayment on time (defaulted). It is held by a credit reporting agency. Your credit rating helps a lender assess the risk of lending to you.

Contact the creditor to make a payment arrangement. Make sure you get any agreement in writing, and check what interest and fees you will need to pay. Speak to a lawyer or financial counsellor if you need help understanding the documents. If you cannot reach an agreement, apply for a hardship variation.

Apply for a hardship variation

If you are finding it hard to repay loans and credit cards you can apply for a hardship variation. This is a formal process where you ask your credit provider to change the terms of your loan contract. To get a hardship variation, you will need to meet three criteria:

  • the loan is for a personal reason, not a business loan (this usually means home loans, personal loans and car loans)
  • you can reasonably repay the amounts agreed under a varied loan contract (maybe you are planning to go back to work after treatment, or you can pay off your debt over a longer term)
  • you can’t make your repayments at the moment because of illness, unemployment or some other reasonable cause.

When applying for a hardship variation, you can ask for reduced repayments or a complete hold on repayments until your situation has improved. The credit provider will usually still charge interest on the loan if repayments are reduced or on hold. This means that the loan balance may increase. Check with your creditor about the terms that apply to you.

Your credit provider may ask you for more information about your finances to help them with the decision. Work out what you can afford to pay before you talk to creditors. If you agree to an amount, it is difficult to go back and change it to a smaller amount, but you can usually pay more if you find you can afford to. Remember, the creditor is focused only on the amount you owe them. You may have other creditors to pay back as well.

Getting a hardship variation may protect your credit rating if you get a variation agreement early and you stay up to date with the lower repayments. Check with your lender what will happen to your credit report. 

If you cannot repay the loan

If you don’t think you will be able to reasonably repay the loan, you may need to consider other options. These may include a debt release on compassionate grounds, selling assets or – as a last resort – bankruptcy.

Call or write to your credit provider and explain that you are unable to meet your current repayments. You can also ask a financial counsellor to negotiate on your behalf.

The credit provider is required by law to respond to your request in writing, usually within 21 days. The credit provider must give written reasons if they refuse your application. If you think the reasons provided are unfair, you can complain via an external dispute resolution scheme.

Almost all credit providers belong to an external dispute resolution (EDR) scheme. An EDR scheme allows you to have a dispute resolved by an independent party without any cost to you and without going to court. The Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) provides EDR for all financial services in Australia. To check if your credit provider is a member and for more details about making a complaint, call AFCA on 1800 931 678.

Get advice before refinancing

Rolling all your loans into one can make it easier to manage the repayments. This is called debt consolidation or refinancing. Before you refinance, it is important to:

  • compare interest rates, fees and charges – make sure you will be paying less for your new loan and check whether your current provider will charge any exit or penalty fees.
  • check the time frame – some providers offer debt consolidation with competitive interest rates for a short time only (e.g. 6 or 12 months).
  • check the company is licensed – search the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) professional register.
  • avoid predatory lenders – some businesses take advantage of people in financial difficulty by offering options that can lead to more problems. They may charge very high establishment fees and interest rates, and make the loan term very short, even for a big loan. This is called predatory lending. If you think you have a loan with a predatory lender, it’s important to seek legal advice immediately.
  • get independent advice – from a financial adviser or financial counsellor.

Ask about credit card repayment protection

When you applied for a credit card, you may have taken out credit card repayment protection. This will help cover repayments if you’re unable to work due to illness, permanent disability or death. There is usually a waiting period before you can make a claim.

There are conditions for using credit card repayment protection. Check your credit card statement or speak to your credit card provider to find out if these apply to you.

Ask if you’re eligible for debt release

In some limited circumstances, your creditor can decide to write off (waive) your debt altogether. This is known as debt release on compassionate grounds, and it is rare. It is usually an option only for people who have been on Centrelink benefits for a long time and have no assets except household goods and tools of trade.

If you think you may be eligible, ask a financial counsellor or a community legal centre to help you apply to have your debts released. Debt release can affect your credit rating, so find out what this means before going ahead. 

Check if the debt is secured or unsecured

When you owe money, the debt may be secured or unsecured. The type of debt affects what action the lender (creditor) can take to get their money back if you stop making repayments.

  • Secured debt – this is a debt that is backed against a particular asset. When a bank lends you money, they may take 'security' for the debt. This means that if you stop making repayments, the bank can take certain property (called the security property) and sell it to get back the amount you owe. A home mortgage or car loan is a secured debt.
  • Unsecured debt – with this type of debt, if you stop making repayments, there is no particular asset the creditor can take and sell. If you can’t pay the debt, you may be able to agree on a hardship variation or get help from AFCA to resolve the dispute. Otherwise, the creditor must go to court and get an order for you to pay the debt. In some instances, the creditor may be able to take some of your income or assets to repay what you owe. Credit cards and personal loans are usually unsecured debts.

What to do if a creditor takes you to court

  • Get professional advice straightaway – if you receive an official court document, such as a statement of claim, you will have only a limited time (usually 21 or 28 days) to file a formal response at court. A statement of claim sets out what your creditor thinks you owe them. If you disagree with the claim, you need to lodge a defence with the court. You can ask your financial counsellor to refer you to a lawyer.
  • Ask whether you can make a payment arrangement – if you agree you owe the amount in the claim but are not in a position to pay it, you can try to negotiate a payment plan with the creditor. You may also have the right to get the statement of claim put on hold and bring the dispute to an external dispute resolution (EDR) scheme. This may give you an opportunity to set up a payment arrangement with your creditor. Seek advice from a financial counsellor or lawyer.
  • Don’t ignore a statement of claim – if you don’t file a formal response or appear at the hearing, the creditor can get a default judgement against you. This means that the court will order you to pay the money owed to the creditor. If you don’t pay, the creditor may be able to take (repossess) some of your income or assets and sell them to get the money you owe.
  • Check that the statement of claim is genuine – some debt collectors may give you documents that look like a statement of claim but haven’t actually been issued by a court. This is fraud and is against the law. If you are not sure whether the statement of claim you have received is genuine, check with a lawyer. Call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 for more information.

 

Medical and pharmaceutical expenses

The Australian Government offers several benefits that can help you pay for medical treatments, tests, prescription medicines and other medical supplies at a lower cost.

Register for the Medicare Safety Net

A cancer diagnosis usually involves many medical appointments for tests and treatment. Medicare will usually contribute a certain amount towards these expenses, but you may need to pay the difference out of your own pocket. The Medicare Safety Net applies to out-of-hospital costs.

Once your out-of-pocket costs go over a certain amount (called the threshold), Medicare will pay you a higher benefit for many services until the end of the calendar year. This may mean you receive more money back from Medicare for your appointments and tests. 

  • If you are an individual – you do not need to register for the Medicare Safety Net as Medicare automatically keeps a record of your expenses.
  • If you are a couple or family – you need to register even if you are all listed on the same Medicare card.

Receive Medicare benefits for allied health services

If you have a chronic health condition, you may be able to get Medicare benefits for allied health practitioners, such as physiotherapists, podiatrists, dietitians and psychologists, to help manage your condition. Under a Chronic Disease Management Plan, if your GP refers you to one or more allied health professionals, you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate for up to a total of five visits per calendar year. 

Talk to your GP about whether this plan would be helpful for your condition. If so, the GP will prepare a GP Management Plan and Team Care Arrangement. They can then refer you to the allied health practitioners listed in the Team Care Arrangement.

Get a PBS Safety Net card

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) subsidises the cost of many prescription medicines for people with a current Medicare card. The PBS Safety Net further reduces the cost of prescription medicines once you or your family have spent a certain amount on them each calendar year. This amount is known as the PBS Safety Net threshold.

There are two PBS Safety Net thresholds – one for general patients and one for concession card holders. Once you or your family reach the threshold, your pharmacist can give you a PBS Safety Net card. With this card, your prescription medicines for the rest of the year will be discounted (or free if you have an eligible concession card). You will need to pay full price for medicines not listed on the PBS.

To get a PBS Safety Net card, keep a record of any PBS medicines you or your family buy. You can use a Prescription Record Form, which you can get from your pharmacy. Your pharmacist might be able to keep a computer record for you, but if you visit different pharmacies, it is best to keep your own paper record. 

Medicines not on the PBS are usually expensive. You may be able to have them as part of a clinical trial or at a reduced cost through a compassionate access or cost-share program offered by the pharmaceutical company. Talk to your health care team for more information.

Use your concession card

Centrelink issues concession and health care cards to help reduce the cost of medical expenses and medicines for eligible people. These include the:

  • Pensioner Concession Card
  • Commonwealth Seniors Health Card
  • Health Care Card.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veteran Card also helps with these costs. The benefits you receive with a Veteran Card depend on its colour.

Some doctors bulk-bill concession card holders, although this is up to the doctor. These cards may also mean you can get:

  • cheaper medicines through the PBS
  • free medicines once you reach the PBS Safety Net threshold
  • refunds for medical expenses through the Medicare Safety Net.

If you have an eligible card, show it to your pharmacist when you are getting your prescription filled. You can also ask your doctor if they will bulk-bill your appointments.

Use the Pharmaceutical Allowance

The Pharmaceutical Allowance is a small amount that helps some people cover the cost of medicines. People receiving some Centrelink payments automatically receive this extra allowance with their main payment each fortnight. For people receiving the Disability Support Pension, Age Pension or Carer Payment, the allowance is included in their regular Pension Supplement.

You do not need to make a claim for the Pharmaceutical Allowance or the Pension Supplement, as Centrelink will automatically assess your eligibility and pay you with your regular fortnightly payments if you qualify.

Receive help with the cost of continence aids

The Australian Government’s Continence Aids Payment Scheme (CAPS) helps with the cost of continence products. If cancer or its treatment has left you with permanent or severe incontinence (difficulty controlling your bladder or bowel movements), you may be eligible for CAPS.

For most cancers, this payment is available only if you also hold a Pensioner Concession Card. For a small number of neurological conditions, including brain and spinal tumours, you can receive the payment without a Pensioner Concession Card.

Check you meet the CAPS criteria with your doctors, then complete an application form and send it to Medicare. To find out more, call the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66 or the CAPS team on 1800 239 309. 

Be reimbursed for external breast prostheses

Medicare’s External Breast Prostheses Reimbursement Program helps with the cost of new or replacement breast prostheses. Women who have a Medicare card and have had a full or partial mastectomy because of breast cancer can claim up to a set amount for a new prosthesis every two years.

If you’ve had a bilateral mastectomy, you are eligible for reimbursement for two breast prostheses. You will need to pay the upfront cost of the prosthesis in full and get reimbursement later. As policies can change, check what assistance is available before you buy a new prosthesis. 

Call Medicare on 132 011 to check if you’re eligible for the program and to get a claim form. You will need to send the completed form with a copy of the original receipt for the prosthesis to Medicare. 

Receive free stoma supplies

In some cases, after surgery for bladder, bowel or anal cancer you may need a temporary or permanent stoma, an opening in the abdomen that allows urine (wee) or faeces (poo) to be collected in a bag. The Australian Government’s Stoma Appliance Scheme (SAS) provides free stoma supplies to people with a temporary or permanent stoma. To apply for the scheme, you must hold a Medicare card and belong to a stoma association.

Your stomal therapy nurse can help you join an approved stoma association. For a small annual membership fee, you will be able to obtain free stoma appliances and products.

Rent

If you're worried about paying your rent, don’t wait until you have fallen behind. Talk to your landlord or real estate agent to see if you can negotiate a reduced rent, a temporary freeze on payments or delay your rent payments for a set amount of time.

If you’re unable to work, check with Centrelink to see if you are eligible for any benefits. If you already receive Centrelink benefits such as the Age Pension, Carer Payment or Disability Support Pension you may be able to get Rent Assistance.

Contact your state’s housing office or tenants' advice service for information about assistance that may be available. You may also find it helpful to talk to a financial counsellor or a community legal centre. 

Travel costs

Having cancer treatment can mean a lot of travel to and from your medical appointments. There are several ways to save on travel costs:

Make a patient transport claim

People who need to travel away from home for treatment may have extra expenses. There is financial help available for transport and accommodation costs.

The Victorian Patient Transport Assistance Scheme (VPTAS) provides financial help to people who need to travel long distances for specialist medical treatment that is not available in their local area. It may also assist with the cost of accommodation. You must meet strict eligibility criteria. For more information, call us on 13 11 20 or talk to the hospital social worker.

Use your Pensioner Concession Card

If you receive certain payments from Centrelink, you will automatically receive a Pensioner Concession Card. This may mean you can get lower fares or free travel on public transport and discounted car registration. Carry your card with you and ask for the concession fare when you use public transport. When renewing your car registration, claim the concession rate if you are eligible.

Check if you’re eligible for the Mobility Allowance

If you are receiving certain Centrelink payments and the cancer or its treatment means you cannot use public transport without a lot of assistance, you may be eligible for the Mobility Allowance. This allowance only applies if you are travelling to work (paid or voluntary), study or training, or to look for work. It is a regular extra amount that is paid with your main Centrelink payment each fortnight.

You can check if you are eligible and submit an online claim. You can also call Centrelink on 132 717. You will need to provide a medical report from your doctor.

Ask about parking concessions

You need to pay for parking at many hospitals and treatment centres. Reduced parking fees are often available to help cover the cost of parking for people who are having ongoing cancer treatment, hold a pension card or are in financial hardship. Talk to your treatment centre about whether they offer concessional parking rates and how to get them.

 

Utility bills

Utilities include services like electricity, gas, water, phone and internet. If you need help paying for your utilities, you have some options:

Apply for hardship programs

Most utility providers are required by law to offer flexible payment options to customers who are having trouble paying their bills. How a hardship program works will vary from provider to provider. You may be able to set up a payment plan that will allow you to pay later (defer the payment) or pay several smaller amounts over a set period (pay by instalments).

Details are usually available on the company’s website, or call them and ask them to send you a copy of their hardship policy. Once you register with a hardship program and are regularly paying something off your bill, your utility provider cannot disconnect your supply.

To find out more about registering with a hardship program, contact your service provider. If you need help resolving a dispute about phones or the internet, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman may be able to help. If you need help resolving a dispute about water or energy, contact the Energy and Water Ombudsman.

Check if you can get a rebate or concession

Rebates and concessions can reduce the amount you owe on your utility bills. They are usually available to customers on low incomes, people receiving certain Centrelink payments, and some concession card holders. Special rebates may be available to customers who are medically unable to regulate their body temperature, or who need to use certain essential medical equipment (such as an oxygen concentrator) at home.

Contact your provider to apply for a rebate or concession on your electricity, gas or water bill.

Ask about payment vouchers and grants

In most states and territories, customers in financial hardship can receive payment assistance vouchers or grants to put towards their utility bills. These may be distributed through community welfare agencies such as The Salvation Army, or directly by the relevant state or territory government department.

Register for an energy efficiency program

You can try to reduce your power and water bills by changing how and when you use energy. Some states and territories offer free energy and water efficiency assessments to help customers find ways to reduce their usage. They may also assist with energy-saving or water-saving repairs and alterations, such as offering a reduced fee for a plumber to fix your leaking taps.

Get energy-saving tips and find assistance in your state or territory. Download the Light Bulb Saver app to see how much money you can save by using energy-efficient alternatives.

Cancer and Your Finances

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Expert content reviewers:

Rania Tannous, Head of Legal, Corporate, Legal and Governance, AMP; Patricia Troll, Senior Legal Counsel, AMP Financial Services Legal, Legal and Governance, AMP; Lynette Brailey, Program Coordinator, Financial Assistance Service, Cancer Council NSW; Stephen Bray, Financial Planner, FM Financial, TAS; Angela Daly, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Services, The Adem Crosby Centre, Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service, QLD; Sandra Hodge, Consumer; Sandi Johnson, Consumer; Antony Mitchell, Financial Counsellor, Financial Counselling Program, Cancer Council VIC; Lucy Pollerd, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Heather Richards, Consumer; Deb Roffe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA. 

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was adapted from Cancer and Your Finances - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was last updated in June 2022.

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