Disability benefit decision-makers have been left without expert medical advice to call on for most of their cases, after the outsourcing giant Atos Healthcare withdrew from large parts of a key contract.
Doctors employed by Atos used to advise Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decision-makers on the more difficult claims for disability living allowance (DLA) and attendance allowance (AA).
Atos has also been providing doctors to visit claimants in their own homes to carry out full medical reports, again under a medical services contract.
But Disability News Service (DNS) has learned that the long-term contract to carry out this work ran out three months ago, and since then Atos has been providing the service on a month-by-month basis.
Now the company has pulled out altogether from most of the work, leaving decision-makers – the civil servants who decide whether or not a disabled person will receive the benefit – without any expert medical advice to call on.
An internal bulletin to staff says that Atos Healthcare has been providing medical services for DLA and AA claims for “many years” but that this support would now be on “a revised basis”.
The move is thought certain to lead to an increase in appeals from people whose DLA and AA claims have been turned down, with decision-makers forced to rely more on guesswork as they make decisions “on the balance of probability based on available evidence at the time”.
DWP guidance is being rewritten, with Atos doctors only available for claims from people with terminal illness, and for those claims from disabled children being dealt with at just one regional benefits centre.
Although personal independence payment (PIP) has now replaced DLA for new working-age claims, under-16s still have to claim DLA, and over-65s must claim AA to cover their care needs.
And due to delays in the PIP rollout process, existing DLA claimants across London and the south of England, the north of England, and Scotland, are still being assessed for DLA rather than PIP if they report a change in their care or mobility needs, if their fixed-term award is about to expire, or if they reach the age of 16,
A DWP spokesman said: “It’s a revised service. Guidance has been provided to decision makers and decisions made will be informed decisions based on information provided.”
He said that the withdrawal of the Atos doctors would not damage the quality of decisions because decision-makers could use information “from a variety of sources”, including the claim form, care plans, and reports from GPs and consultants.
The internal memo is just the latest evidence that problems for Atos – which has numerous government contracts – are continuing to mount.
Despite DNS having seen the bulletin, and DWP admitting that it was genuine, Atos has so far refused to confirm that there have been any changes to its medical services contract.
Campaigners already believe that Atos has contributed to or even caused the deaths of thousands of disabled people, because of the way its assessors have carried out the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) on behalf of the government.
But last month, DNS learned that meetings between Atos and DWP civil servants were taking place across the country because a recruitment crisis had left the company with a severe shortage of doctors.
The public spending watchdog is also investigating concerns about the award to Atos of at least one of the contracts to assess those claiming PIP – following a DNS investigation – as part of a major “value for money” study into the new benefit and its implementation.
And in July, the government announced that it was bringing in new companies to join Atos in carrying out WCAs.
14 November 2013