Panorama has revealed evidence of disabled or sick people being cleared as fit to work by the Government’s Work Capability Assessment in spite of medical advice given by their own GPs.
Professor Harrington, the man appointed by the Government to review the assessment, told the programme that the success of the test is ‘patchy’ and that as a result, people who are genuinely unable to work will suffer. He says:
“There are certainly areas where it’s still not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement.”
Over two and a half million people in the UK are required to take the test because they are too ill to work. The contract between the Department of Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare, who conduct the Work Capability Assessments, is worth a billion pounds and runs to 2015. However, more than 176,000 cases go to appeal tribunals each year, costing the taxpayer an additional £50 million. Almost a third of these cases are overturned.
Neil Bateman, a Welfare Rights Advisor says that his success rate for appeals is much higher and that the system is badly flawed:
“I think I’ve won all of the appeals so far. 80-90% with experienced advisers is quite common, which is ridiculous that we’re getting such a fantastic success rate. The way they gather the evidence and the quality of the decision-making is badly wrong.”
Stephen Hill was sent to his first Work Capability Assessment in 2010 when he gave up his job as a sandwich delivery man after being referred for tests on his heart. His wife Denise was with him at the assessment. She says:
“She checked him out. She did his blood pressure and his heart and said to see a doctor as soon as possible.”
Steve did and was immediately referred to a consultant.
However, when the ESA results came in, despite the fact the assessor had recommended he urgently see a doctor, Stephen had been given no points in the assessment, and subsequently found fit for work. In the meantime, medical consultants had diagnosed him with heart failure.
Steve won his appeal but this was followed up with a demand to return for another assessment.
“He got a letter for another medical and I couldn’t believe it,” says Denise. “He’d got to go for a medical when he was waiting for a heart operation.”
According to Denise, the second assessor was more interested in a problem with Steve’s knee than his heart. Once again he was awarded zero points and the assessor wrote in Steve’s report that “…significant disability due to cardiovascular problems seems unlikely.”
Steve’s family say that the second assessment decision started to affect him in an unexpected way. His son Shane says:
“He started doing more. He started thinking, well I must be ok now, I must be fit for work if they’re telling me I am. On Boxing Day he hoovered the car out and as he was taking it back into the house, that’s when he collapsed and had his heart attack and died.”
Stephen Hill died 39 days after being found fit for work. Shane Hill says: “You believe doctors are right so it doesn’t matter who’s doing the assessments.”
However, Steve Hill may not be a one-off. Between January and August last year, an average of 32 people who the department of work and pensions thought could be helped back to work died every week.
Panorama spoke to an Atos Healthcare professional who carries out the test. They are afraid to be named because of a confidentiality agreement with Atos but told Panorama that the Work Capability Assessment is too rigid.
“There are people who you would like to be able to award ESA [Employment and Support Allowance] to but you can’t. If you are doing it absolutely honestly, they just don’t get the points you know, that’s it, they’re stuffed.”
Atos insiders say that they’re also under pressure to see eight patients a day and with the paperwork around each examination, it could impact on the Work Capability Assessments. “We’re under pressure to see eight patients a day, even if it’s impossible to do. I’d like to think that the quality of my work is consistent but time pressure doesn’t help.”
In a statement to Panorama, Atos said that their staff “carry out thousands of assessments every month in accordance with detailed guidelines as set by the Department of Work and Pensions… Any serious suggestion that our work has fallen short of the high standards we set ourselves… is investigated as a matter of course.”
However, local GPs like Chris Johnstone believe that they’re left to pick up the pieces when patients fail assessments. He says that the test - far from saving the Government money – is adding to NHS costs in poor areas.
“We are busy at the best of times and we are now having to fit in more people whose appointments are more for their benefits than they are for their health.”
Staff at the Maudsley Hospital in South London feel that they’re picking up the tab for a system that has gone badly wrong.
Andy King has bi-polar disorder and had already been feeling unwell when he was told he would have to be reassessed for ESA.
“That was quite a blow. I thought I might lose a big part of my benefit… and that’s what resulted partially in me being admitted to the Maudsley in mid November.”
Andy had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and spent time in the hospital catatonic and unable to speak. The decision about his claim was made without him being seen – he was put into the Work Related Activity Group, which means that he was to be supported back into work.
The dedicated welfare team at the hospital appealed the result of the assessment and won.
Shelley Leckey from the Maudsley Welfare Team says they’re now overwhelmed with helping people like Andy appeal wrong decisions.
“We’re having to call upon the resources of the doctors and nurses, and social workers, to put everything together to send off to the Department of Work and Pensions.”
The government says that the system is being improved and assessors are getting new training in working with vulnerable people.
But according to Professor Malcolm Harrington, who recommended that training, there is some way to go.
Panorama: Disabled or Faking It? will be shown
on Monday at 8.30pm on BBC One.
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