Under fire French firm Atos wins new DWP disability benefit test contracts
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Under fire French firm Atos wins new DWP disability assessment contract
Under fire French firm Atos Healthcare has won the lion’s share of new Government contracts to carry out new disability benefit assessments.
The firm and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) came in for heavy criticism earlier this week in a BBC Panorama investigation for their approach to reassessing disability claimants’ entitlement to Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
In one rather shocking case a man diagnosed with heart failure died 39 days after being found ‘fit for work’ for a second time by the firm. In another case an emphysema sufferer, who at one stage was given two days to live by his doctor, was passed fit for work but later successfully appealed the decision.
Government figures highlighted by Panorama show that more than 176,000 cases go to appeal tribunals every year with around 30% of those cases being overturned, leading to calls the system is “flawed.
Now Atos – along with another private company, Capita - has been awarded contracts to assess those claiming the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which will replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), worth up to £131.50 a week, from next year.
The Government wants to cut the rate of growth in expenditure on the benefit by 20% and introduce reassessments to ensure the benefit is “better targeted”. In nine years the numbers claiming DLA has risen from just under 2.5 million to 3.2 million – an increase of around a third.
A DWP consultation - published earlier this year on the eligibility criteria for PIP - asserts that the caseload under the new benefit would shrink by 500,000 by 2015 - i.e. people no longer being eligible for the benefit.
The DWP says a core feature of PIP will be a “new assessment of individual needs by a trained health professional”.
The DWP said: “These face-to-face assessments ensure that, unlike in DLA, disabled people will be able to have a detailed discussion about how their impairment affects their everyday lives – rather than having to self-assess themselves though a complicated claim form.
“This means that decisions on benefit entitlement will be more accurate, objective and consistent than currently.”
Atos will be responsible for tests in Scotland, London, the North-east, North-west and South of England, while Capita will administer Wales and central England.
Charities have reacted with horror that Atos has been awarded another contract. In a letter to the Independent, Steve Ford, chief executive of Parkinson's UK, said: "It is hugely concerning to see that Atos have been given the green light for the Personal Independence Payment contract.
"Assessments carried out by Atos have led to many people being forced to appeal against decisions that are plainly wrong. How can someone with Parkinson's – a progressive neurological condition – have an assessment report that implies they will be ready for work again in six, 12 or 18 months?"
In January, a report written by disabled people found that cutting DLA expenditure by 20% would mean a significant loss of income to large numbers of disabled people who would lose valuable support.
However, the Government says the 20-year-old benefit needs reforming with an estimated £630m going out in overpayments and £190m being under-payed because it has “no systematic way of reassessing people”.
It adds that the vast majority of claimants (71%) get the benefit for life without systematic checks to see if their condition has changed.
A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a new approach to delivering health and disability assessments working with regional providers to help ensure a quality service is delivered in a way that best meets local needs.
“Providers have already been working with disabled people and their organisations in the design of the process and DWP will be closely monitoring and auditing assessments to ensure their quality and consistency.
“These face-to-face assessments ensure that, unlike in DLA, disabled people will be able to have a detailed discussion with a health professional about how their impairment affects their everyday lives – rather than trying to self-assess though an over-complicated claim form.”