The Secret Cuts: Part Six, How are those with mental health problems treated by Atos?

With complaints about the failed Atos work capability assessment flooding in, Alan White and Kate Belgrave look at some of them.

Update 5 September 2013

This piece originally mentioned allegations that a client was charged £70 by an agency called Outlook South West for a letter outlining his mental health problems. They have been removed. A spokesman for the company has since told us: "We give patients access to their clinical records for free, including any print outs they may require. We have also spoken with the client in question (before the article was published) to reassure them that we could provide what they asked for free of charge and they were quite satisfied with this."

Update, 28 August 2013

In the article below, we talked about GPs being instructed by their Local Medical Committees to stop providing medical support information for disability benefit claimants appealing “fit to work” decisions. That decision by the Bro Taf LMC in Wales had sparked real concern among claimants and campaigners, as you’ll read below.

Now, the ante is being upped even further. GP magazine Pulse is reporting “that Local Medical Committee leaders are considering a ‘Just Say No’ campaign to support [GP] practices who refuse to take on unfunded work.” The story says that LMC leaders have: “already drafted a letter to help them turn down patient requests for support when appealing against their benefits being withdrawn.”

The magazine goes on to say that:

The campaign would be designed to back GPs who turn down requests for medical reports from benefit claimants and requests for work from secondary care. The LMC leaders from Lancashire and Cumbria have already come together to create a template letter for all GP practices to use in the area advising patients against personally asking for help from their GP. But they are also planning on taking forward a campaign to widen a "just say no" campaign to other areas of unfunded workload at its next meeting, including requests from hospitals and other parts of the NHS and social care.

Meanwhile, the Bro Taf local medical committee issued another statement which took an even harder line than the first: it says that “under their NHS contract there is no requirement for GPs to provide reports or offer an opinion on incapacity for work to anyone unless requested to do so by Jobcentre Plus" (you can read the whole statement here). This and the amounts of money that benefit claimants are being asked to pay for medical support information (see below) will leave many claimants in a very bad position - they’ll have trouble getting the information that they need to support their appeals and may be priced out of getting it even if their GPs agree to supply it. That’s an impossible situation and it can’t be allowed to continue.

Original Story

Tony Lea, who runs the Cornish benefit advice charity Bufferzone, wants to tell us about Jane. She suffered abuse from the age of 13. She never went to school and she can’t read or write. She’s 33 years old and has tried to kill herself before.

In February this year, the outsourcing company Atos carried out her Employment and Support Allowance Work Capability Assessment (WCA). She didn’t score any points on the mental health ability descriptors, and was placed in the ESA Work Related Activity Group – the group for claimants that the DWP considers to be capable of work at some point.

She was assigned a career adviser by a company called Prospects, which is contracted to find jobs for the unemployed under the Government’s Work Programme. Jane told this adviser that she had mental health problems. The adviser called her a liar and sanctioned her benefits. By June, Jane had got a job. She was in the job for three days before she tried to commit suicide by overdose.

On 2nd July, Tony told the Prospects career adviser not to contact her, and asked a mental health crisis team to carry out an immediate assessment. On the 29th of that month she tried to take an overdose again. Tony says this was because Prospects sent her a letter. She’d been receiving them for months, asking why she hadn’t been in contact with them. She can’t read and didn’t want them read it out to her, so she’d been storing them in a drawer: 18 of them in total. She recognised the company’s logo on the top, and that tipped her over the edge.

Tony made an official complaint. The DWP said it would not investigate the matter because Prospects has its own internal complaints procedure. On 5th August another Prospects worker phoned Jane. Tony believes “we’d have been looking at another suicide attempt,” had another mental health team not visited her.

When we contacted them, Prospects issued the following statement:

“Prospects strongly refutes the allegations made by Bufferzone which purportedly relate to one of our customers on the Work Programme in South West.

"Prospects takes its responsibilities to its customers and staff seriously. We have robust policies on safeguarding and data protection in place to ensure their privacy and safety is always maintained. With this in mind, it would be inappropriate for Prospects to comment on individual any cases.

"Prospects is currently helping more than 18,000 long term unemployed people in the South West to return to work through its innovative ASCENT model of delivery. Prospects works with customers to help them overcome barriers to employment through bespoke support and training to increase confidence and develop skills.”

***

You can see why there is such concern about the way that the WCA deals with people who have mental health conditions - and concern about the DWP’s commitment to a real overhaul. Here’s a reason to question that commitment: the Upper Tribunal recently ruled that the current WCA process is unreasonable to people with mental health conditions. That ruling came after an action against the DWP was brought by the Mental Health Resistance Network. Two claimants argued that Atos work capability assessments discriminated against people with mental health conditions. The courts agreed.

That decision would have put the onus on the DWP to source medical information for people with mental health conditions right at the start of their ESA applications. Unfortunately, the DWP is fighting that decision tooth and nail - and was recently granted leave to appeal it. "We already request claimants supply any evidence they feel will be relevant to the assessment in the ESA50 questionnaire," the department said in an email. The fact that the change could improve the experience for people who must go through the appalling work capability process appears to be neither here nor there.

Neither is the fact that sourcing people’s medical information at the start of their WCAs might improve things as far as the public purse goes – people found eligible for ESA from the start would not need to take their case through the wildly oversubscribed and costly appeals process. You’d also think the fact that the minister for employment, Mark Hoban, has been forced to admit there are problems with the assessments and the written reports that Atos produces (“an unacceptable reduction in the quality”) would give the DWP reason to pause when looking to overturn decisions which could dramatically improve the information available to Atos assessors. (Hoban has also brought in his former employers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, “to provide independent advice in relation to strengthening quality assurance processes across all its health and disability assessments.” Ahem).

And then Tony tells us about Claire. She has a history of depression and suicide attempts. The WCA said there was nothing to go on regarding her mental illness. But the mental health team and Tony told Atos and the DWP not to contact her because they strongly believed she had a paranoid schizophrenia condition.

When her case went to tribunal, Claire only had medical evidence that was over ten years old, because her GP refused to provide evidence. The DWP supplied no evidence to back up its case that she was in good mental health. The tribunal chair was deeply unimpressed with the stress to which she was being subjected, and demanded medical evidence from both the department and her GP. Now she faces another tribunal in six weeks’ time.

Tony will most likely win the tribunal. Last year he attended 104 tribunals with nine losses: a 93 per cent success rate. His overall rate of success is 98 per cent. As he says: “Atos are so bad they make my job easy.”

***

This whole scene is a catastrophe. The implosions are everywhere. A few weeks ago, disability benefit claimants and campaigners were shocked to read that GPs in south east Wales had been told by the Bro Taf local medical committee to stop providing support information for disability benefit claimants appealing “fit to work” decisions, because the work was an “abuse of resources”. We spoke to the Bro Taf LMC, which sent this statement (and they said they’d be issuing another one this week, so we’ll look out for that) to say that their problem was not with providing medical evidence for claims, but for the “increasing number of appeals [which] has resulted in more GP appointments being taken up to deal with such requests.”

None of which helps claimants and we’re looking for a legal view on that withholding of support information. Public Interest Lawyers’ Tessa Gregory says: "It can’t be right that claimants are left without vital medical evidence from their GPs to support them in their appeals against Atos assessments which are notoriously unfair. We are considering the position of both the DWP and the Local Medical Committee carefully to see whether a legal challenge can be brought to ensure that claimants get the assistance they require."   

The WCA’s systemic failures are causing complete havoc.

Only a day before the Bro Taf story appeared, industry magazine Pulse reported that “GPs were struggling to cope with a 21 per cent rise in requests to verify work capability since January [2013]” – saying that figures obtained by Pulse “showed the number of requests to verify claimants’ ability to work have increased by over a fifth since the beginning of this year.”

Note the anger in the comments on that story, with people arguing that they're doing the extra work for social security “reform”, while Atos makes the profit - “ATOS collects the money. GPs do the work. Welcome to the Tory vision of privatisation.”

As far as charging for medical information is concerned: it's not new for GPs and consultants to charge (there's a list of some charges here) – but the problem in the case of disability benefits is that cost could be pricing people out of vital information they need to support their claims and leave them with absolutely nowhere to go. What happens then? Around the country, people are being asked to pay £20, £30, £50 and more for medical evidence (you can see in the comments here that even last year, people were being charged upwards of £100 for support information and saying they couldn’t afford to pay it).

The Citizens Advice Bureau saw all this a mile off: they raised the issue of cost back in their January 2012 investigation (called Right First Time) into the accuracy (or otherwise) of ESA reports. The CAB observed then that: "In many cases, NHS doctors will charge an average of £30 (we have evidence of consultants charging £200 an hour) for medical evidence and few people on low incomes can afford to pay this much out of an income of £67.50 ESA (assessment phase rate) per week." That was over 18 months ago. As the number of appeals skyrocketed, this problem could only grow.

And it’s grown into a right disaster. When the Bro Taf story broke, the disability campaigner Sue Marsh wrote about Mark Hoban’s attempts to shift responsibility for the ever-burgeoning appeal rate: as she said here, Hoban has implied that the high rate of ESA appeals is at least in part because people don’t have enough medical evidence:

“DWP ministers have blamed the staggering 43 per cent ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) appeal rate on claimants not requesting and submitting enough medical evidence. As Mark Hoban claimed, “What’s happening too often is people are suggesting to claimants ‘oh, just leave the medical evidence until the appeal’ – there’s a shared responsibility here.”

In theory, within the claim process, Atos is expected to request evidence from a claimant’s doctor when the claimant is likely to be placed in the Support Group. For the year up to October 2012, Atos only requested such evidence (as an ESA113 form) in 27.2 per cent of all ESA referrals; 23.8 per cent of these were not returned by GPs.” The DWP would have us believe that extra sourcing of information is a robust part of the WCA process: when we asked why it was trying to overturn the Upper Tribunal decision on mental health claimants, the department said: “Atos healthcare professionals will continue to seek further medical evidence in accordance with the Department’s guidelines.” Doesn’t sound like that’s going too well.

Sue Marsh tells us that Hoban needs to sort it out. “The ESA50 clearly suggests that a claimant sends in medical evidence from a consultant or GP that knows them best. If those medical professionals are now withholding that vital support and Mr Hoban insists that it is necessary for an accurate WCA decision, he MUST act immediately to make sure that medical professionals cannot refuse to provide this evidence and that they are not allowed to charge punitive fees for obtaining it."

 

All Bufferzone client names have been changed

Atos. Photograph: Getty Images
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.