The government contractor Atos Healthcare has denied that fresh delays to the introduction of the coalition’s new disability benefit are due to a serious shortage of doctors willing to carry out assessments.
The new Conservative minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, was forced to tell MPs this week that the rollout of personal independence payment (PIP) – which is replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA) – had been delayed again.
The first reassessments of existing DLA claimants was due to begin on Monday (28 October) across England, Scotland and Wales – having already been delayed once – but will now only take place in Wales, the Midlands and a small part of East Anglia.
All of the areas where reassessments were due to be carried out by the other PIP contractor, Capita, will go ahead as planned.
But with the exception of a small part of Gloucestershire and the Ipswich and Norwich postcode areas, the reassessment process has been put on hold in all of the Atos zones – right across London and the south of England, the north of England, and Scotland.
Only those existing DLA claimants who report a change in their care or mobility needs, or whose fixed-term award is about to expire, or who are reaching the age of 16, or those who choose to claim PIP, will start to be reassessed from next week in the rollout areas, with those on indefinite awards not being reassessed until 2015 at the earliest.
In a written statement to MPs this week, Penning claimed: “Introducing natural reassessment gradually enables us to test the claimant reassessment journey, using an approach similar to the one we took with new claims in the controlled start area in April.”
Earlier this month, Disability News Service revealed that crisis meetings had been taking place because Atos had a serious shortage of doctors able to carry out disability benefits assessments.
When asked this week if the delays in the Atos PIP areas were due to their recruitment problems, a DWP spokesman said: “I am not aware of that as an issue. If you want to draw [those]conclusions, that is up to you. You should speak to them. It is for them to answer.”
He added: “The end-to-end claim process is taking longer than expected. It is more of a phased introduction.
“The geographical areas cover both providers and allow us to live test the claimant reassessment journey.
“As originally announced, most existing DLA claimants will not be re-assessed until 2015 or later, after DWP has considered the findings of the first independent review in 2014.”
And he said that Atos was already carrying out assessments of new PIP claimants, even though most of its reassessments had been put on hold.
Asked when the rest of the rollout would begin, he said: “We will announce that in due course.”
The government had planned for nearly 140,000 PIP tests to be carried out by Atos and Capita in 2013-14, but this number is now likely to be sharply reduced because of the latest delays.
Atos is already performing more than 10,000 work capability assessments a week to reassess claimants of incapacity benefit for employment and support allowance (ESA), as well as assessing thousands of new ESA claimants every week.
An Atos spokeswoman denied that staff shortages had caused the DWP decision to delay the reassessment programme.
She said: “In line with the department’s phased approach to natural reassessment we will go live with two areas on 28 October with more coming on line later.
“We support this approach which enables us to work alongside the department to understand people’s reassessment journey, using an approach similar to the one we took with new claims in the ‘controlled start’ area in April.
“We use a range of clinical staff and our partner organisations already employ the appropriately trained clinical staff to undertake PIP assessments.”
24 October 2013