Crisis meetings have taken place across the country because the government contractor Atos Healthcare has a serious shortage of doctors able to carry out disability benefits assessments, Disability News Service (DNS) has been told.
The meetings came as the government prepares to begin a lengthy programme to reassess hundreds of thousands of disability living allowance (DLA) recipients for the new personal independence payment (PIP).
Atos has won two of four contracts to carry out PIP assessments, with nearly 140,000 of the tests to be carried out by Atos and its fellow outsourcing giant Capita in 2013-14.
But Atos is already performing more than 10,000 work capability assessments (WCAs) 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.
Now DNS has learned that crisis meetings have been taking place across the country between Atos executives and civil servants, who have been sworn to secrecy about the reason for those meetings.
The Atos executives have been admitting that the company has a drastic shortage of doctors on its books.
The latest revelations will only add to the sense of doom surrounding the beleaguered outsourcing giant, which has faced repeated protests from disabled activists over the way it performs the assessments.
The public spending watchdog is already investigating concerns over the award of at least one of the PIP contracts to Atos – 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 carry out WCAs, in addition to Atos.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said at the time that the move was needed to provide extra capacity and “drive down waiting times” because of a huge WCA backlog, but it was seen by many as a sign of government frustration with the company’s performance.
An Atos spokeswoman said in a statement: “We do not comment on internal contract meetings.
“Atos Healthcare does not need to recruit huge numbers of health professionals as our partner organisations already employ appropriately trained clinical staff.
“We do not only use doctors for PIP assessments but also nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.”
A DWP spokesman added: “Meetings are held regularly with Atos to monitor their performance but we do not comment on the content of these.
“Assessments are carried out by a broad range of health professionals, including doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists.
“The Atos sub-contractors have their own large network of [healthcare professionals]working for them which Atos can use for PIP assessments. This has built flexibility into the system.”
10 October 2013