Stores have criticised the decision to switch Healthy Start scheme paper vouchers to a pre-paid card, suggesting it creates a loophole for customers to cheat the system and buy noncompliant products.
Around a third of convenience stores participate in the government initiative, led by the NHS for residents in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Parents and guardians with young children, who are in receipt of qualifying benefits, are able to receive £4.25 a week to purchase certain products, including fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, as well as cow’s milk and infant formula.
Residents in England and Wales are also able to buy tinned fruit, vegetables and pulses. Three years ago, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) first announced it was exploring options for digitising the scheme.
As a result, from 31 March, paper vouchers will be removed from circulation, and all payments must be made with a pre-paid card. Store owners said the move has burdened them with more responsibility in checking product compliancy at checkout.
Serge Notay, of Notay Stores in Batley, North Yorkshire, told Better Retailing: “The voucher would be presented at the end of the transaction, meaning we could check what they were being used for. With the card, it’s more difficult. “It’s blue in colour and looks like a normal bank card. It does say Healthy Start on it, but it’s hard to see that when you’re serving a customer in a busy shop.
“Previously, the onus was on us. If you were seen to give cash or any other product for the vouchers, it would be removed from our store,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to monitor it.”
In addition, health charity Sustain wrote to health secretary Sajid Javid last week, calling for support on the phased switchover, confirming users had already run into activation and application issues with their cards. In the letter, they said: “The card does not allow for part-payments and users have reported having to separate out their Healthy Start items at the checkout and pay for these separately, generating stigma and too many instances of shopping baskets being declined at the checkout.”
A spokesperson for DHSC told Better Retailing: “The NHS Business Services Authority is leading the work to digitise the Healthy Start scheme to help families to more easily apply for, receive and use the benefits. “We would encourage anyone who believes that they are eligible and has had an online application rejected to try again as there is now a fix in place.”
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