health & science

Healthcare debts for families of terror victims

Some Christchurch terror victims are using their victim payouts to pay their carers' healthcare costs because of the type of visas their families are on, Dileepa Fonseka and David Williams report

Aasim* lives on 30 painkillers a day. 

His collarbone was shattered during the March 15 terrorist attack, he suffered extensive nerve damage and will never get use of his right hand back. 

Aasim has had several surgeries since then - none of them have been able to return him to the quality of life he had before. 

“It’s a lifetime disability for me now,” he says.

“There’s no cure for it. It has to be managed by painkillers. That’s the only thing they can do.”

He survives thanks to the help of his brother who sleeps next to him on a couch.

But his brother faced health problems of his own, with a doctor telling him he needed immediate surgery on an abscess. 

The hospital operated on him, discharged him the next day then invoiced him for $7,000. 

“He was quite surprised. He said: 'I’m just on a visitor’s visa since March, I am not working and my family’s here',” Aasim said.

Raj Manji says families here to provide support for the March 15 victims are unexpectedly incurring healthcare debts. Photo: David Williams

Raf Manji, an independent advisor to the Christchurch Foundation - which has raised $11 million for the victims of the Christchurch attacks - said he was hearing of more cases like these where families here to support March 15 victims are facing financial pressures as a result of their visa status. 

“Supporters who've come in obviously from overseas to look after the injured or bereaved are being hit with medical costs, even for going to the GP, or for some of them who have experienced acute medical issues they're being treated but then they're getting a huge bill.”

Manji said some were meeting these payments through the victim payouts of the people they were there to support. 

“If a family receives a payout they can use those funds to pay other bills and whatever they want, but it's kind of not fair in a way.”

Christchurch-based immigration lawyer Nicola Tiffen of Anthony Harper said she found it “frustrating” that many of the families of victims were only allowed in on three-month visitor visas.

A "Christchurch response" visa doesn't cover family members who weren't in New Zealand at the time of the attacks. Photo: David Williams

Coming in on this type of visa meant there was no certainty around how long they could stay, and they couldn’t legally work in New Zealand - making them a potential financial “burden” on victims at a time of record-low unemployment in Christchurch, Tiffen said.

The Health and Disability Services Eligibility Direction 2011 sets out the visa categories that are eligible for taxpayer-funded healthcare

Those who are on visitor visas or short-term working visas aren’t eligible for subsidies and have to pay the full cost of their healthcare.

Tiffen said in the aftermath of the Christchurch Terror attacks Immigration New Zealand (INZ) had worked swiftly to facilitate visitor visas for relatives of the victims, but she suspected less thought had been given to what would happen to those relatives in the long-term. 

It was an important question given the need for some of the victims to have the support of family for many years to come, she said.

“A typical migrant will not be like you or I...they have few friends and family in the country who can help them if something goes horribly wrong.”

She didn’t believe many families of victims here on visitor visas were aware that they could face huge costs that they might need to cover out of their own pocket, or that there were other restrictive conditions attached to their stay in New Zealand.

“It’s also very difficult for Immigration NZ to say to people, at that time [March 15], we’re going to let you come over, but by the way you’re not going to be able to stay here long term,” Tiffen said.

Nicola Tiffen says it's "frustrating" people here to support victims don't have the ability to work. Photo: David Williams

A special “Christchurch response” permanent resident visa provides an official pathway to residency for the relatives of those injured in the March 15 attacks, but not if they weren’t in New Zealand at the time of the attacks. 

Tiffen said travel insurance could cover some of those healthcare costs but it was also difficult to get health insurance for older people.

Relatives of Christchurch terror attack had never planned to move to New Zealand before the attacks so were also less likely to have put insurance arrangements in place before they arrived, she said.

“They’re extremely anxious about how they’re going to keep living”

Another victim of the Christchurch attacks, Shameel*, still walks around with fragments of shooter’s bullet inside him, including in his lungs.

Shameel spent a month in hospital after the attack undergoing a bone graft and recovering from it. He will face another surgery in the New Year. 

His father looked after his children and the household while he was recovering but has had to return to India for cataract surgery, unable to meet the $8000 price-tag for such surgery in New Zealand.

“The moral support I get from my family, I won’t get it from anyone else.”

Shameel isn’t able to drive which limits his ability to do basic tasks like getting groceries. 

He tried lobbying Victim Support for the money so that his father could stay in the country to have the surgery, but they said they could only cover his medical treatment not his father’s costs.

“My dad came for supporting me, helping me. I can’t work.”

Tiffen said family networks were needed to support these victims, and she encouraged people to put themselves in the shoes of the victims of March 15 who were “severely injured” and might never be able to work again. 

“They’re extremely anxious about how they’re going to keep living.”

“It’s difficult for us to understand what that must be like.”

Aasim acknowledged ACC or the Government could pay for a carer to provide him with physical support, but a carer would never be able to provide the emotional support his family would bring. 

“The moral support I get from my family, I won’t get it from anyone else.”

“That kind of moral support, even if the Government pays $1 million I can’t get it from anyone else, apart from my own family.”

The office for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was contacted for comment, but had not responded by the time of publication.

*Newsroom has been advised to withhold names from this story for security purposes

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