The country’s most influential disabled people’s organisation is facing fresh controversy after it emerged that one of its directors works for a company that carries out secret surveillance on claimants of disability insurance.
John Gillman is a non-executive director of Disability Rights Enterprises (DRE), the trading arm of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), and held a similar post for three years with RADAR, one of the three organisations that merged to form DR UK last year.
But research by disabled activist Mike Bach has revealed that Gillman is also a consultant, and a former non-executive director, with Health Claims Bureau (HCB), a company which provides “impartial claims inspection services for disability insurers”.
HCB’s work includes investigating the “validity” of claimants’ “incapacity”, and trying to establish their “true physical functioning levels and psychological status”.
This means that HCB performs a similar role in the private insurance industry to the public sector role of the government contractor Atos Healthcare, which assesses the eligibility of claimants of out-of-work disability benefits.
There is no suggestion that HCB has faced any criticism for the quality of its work, or that of its staff, and the company appears to have an excellent reputation in the industry, as does Gillman.
But HCB’s work includes carrying out secret surveillance on disabled people who have claimed through their own or their employers’ “income protection insurance” (IPI) policies.
HCB is also controversial because of its links with the US insurance giant Unum, which has been criticised for influencing welfare reform in the UK over the last two decades and then profiting from the resulting policies.
Disabled activists say they are concerned that DR UK should have a director so closely linked to an organisation that carries out practices such as secret surveillance on disabled people.
Mo Stewart, the disabled activist who has done most to highlight concerns about Unum, said she was concerned to learn that “a professional involved with DR UK is also involved with the Health Claims Bureau, and I would have thought that such a link gives the impression at least of a conflict of interest”.
She said: “DR UK leads the country in disability rights publications, whereas any company involved with the ‘secret surveillance’ of disabled people is clearly working for the best interests of the healthcare insurance industry.”
Stewart also raised concerns about the company’s links to Unum, which she said was a “highly discredited disability insurance market leader”.
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said Gillman’s dual role was “a massive conflict of interest”.
She added: “I would like to say I am shocked, but I am not at all surprised.”
She said DPAC had distanced itself from DR UK “because we are unhappy with the links they have that we would consider inappropriate”, and pointed to its work with the outsourcing company Capita, and its role convening the government’s new Disability Action Alliance.
Gillman told Disability News Service that he had brought “business expertise” to his role with DRE and tried to “help them with my network of business people”.
He said he had stepped down as a non-executive director with HCB in October, but still works for the company as a consultant, providing business strategy advice.
But he insisted that HCB’s “nitty-gritty was outside my remit”, although he accepted that he knew the company carried out “investigative work”.
He said: “I can understand how people would feel uncomfortable about that sort of thing, that people would be investigated to see if their claims are valid.
“I think what [insurance companies]would say is, ‘We have a duty to all our policy-holders to make sure the claims are truthful.’”
But he said: “It has never been an area of the business I have had anything directly or indirectly to do with.”
He added: “If I thought for one minute that the way HCB behaved was in any way damaging to people with disabilities, I would have had nothing to do with them.
“I never saw a conflict there because as far as I knew the company always acted with honesty and integrity in everything they did.”
James Harris, HCB’s chair and managing director, said its surveillance services were “only commissioned in a tiny percentage of cases where specific circumstances arise that give rise to suspicion that an insurer is being misled”.
He added: “Denial of claims has never been our aim. Our function is to provide factual information to claims managers to contribute to informed claims decisions in a timely way.
“We gather information that enables claims managers to make more informed decisions, faster.”
Harris said he saw “no conflict” between Gillman’s dual roles, and stressed that his job at HCB was “more about drawing on his knowledge of employee benefits in the wider sense, as HCB wishes to broaden its customer base to include corporations as well as insurance offices”.
Phil Friend, chair of Disability Rights UK, who first brought Gillman in as an adviser to RADAR, said: “He has never ever talked with RADAR or DR UK about anything other than helping disabled people achieve what they want to achieve.
“I have never had the slightest worries about John Gillman from a disability rights point-of-view. All the work he has been doing has been incredibly positive, and if you talked to our staff they would say the same thing.”
Disability Rights UK has had a troubled start to 2013, after publishing documents that raised concerns about its financial position, and making several members of staff redundant.
It was already facing heavy criticism for convening the government’s new Disability Action Alliance, and helping Capita win a lucrative disability assessment contract.
But Bach’s research has also drawn attention to HCB’s links to the huge US-based insurance company Unum.
One of HCB’s directors is Professor Sir Mansel Aylward, a former Department for Work and Pensions medical director and now director of the Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University, which was previously sponsored by Unum.
Another HCB director is Al Hemond, who spent 23 years with Unum, and is a “recognised expert and world leader in disability claims management”.
Unum is the UK’s largest provider of IPI, and tougher welfare rules – such as those that are seeing incapacity benefit (IB) replaced by employment and support allowance, with eligibility tested by the new, stricter, work capability assessment (WCA) – could persuade more people to take out IPI, boosting Unum’s profits.
Two years ago, Unum launched a major marketing campaign to promote the need for IPI, just as the coalition began its three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing claimants of IB through the new, stricter WCA.
Unum has admitted there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US, mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people, a record mentioned in a Commons debate on Atos and the WCA earlier this month, along with concerns that Atos’s chief medical officer had joined the company from Unum.
But Unum has also faced criticism in the UK. In a parliamentary debate in 1999, a string of MPs accused the company of refusing to pay out on valid insurance claims from disabled people who had lost their jobs due to ill-health or disability.
Harris stressed that Unum was not one of HCB’s clients, and that neither HCB, Aylward or Hemond had any “formal links” with Unum.
31 January 2013