A mental health charity has been heavily criticised for its decision to announce a partnership with a controversial US insurance giant that has made significant financial gains from government incapacity benefit reforms that it influenced through its lobbying.
The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) said the new partnership with Unum would see the two organisations work together to tackle the stigma of mental health in the workplace and encourage employers to safeguard the mental health of their employees.
But disabled activists who learned of the partnership this week are horrified that a mental health charity would join forces with an organisation that has made money from the controversial programme to reform incapacity benefits, and has bragged about steering government policy on those reforms.
They point out that many thousands of people with mental distress have either died or had their health further damaged by the reforms.
Mo Stewart, the disabled activist who has led efforts in the UK to raise concerns about Unum’s influence, has written to a trustee of the charity to alert him to the company’s background.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) she had “spent the past six years researching the links between this American insurance corporate giant with the British government*, their funding of a research centre to produce policy-based research that was used to justify the introduction of the fatally flawed WCA, and the fact that they were identified as the second worst healthcare insurance company in America”.
She said: “It remains cause for serious concern that this American corporate giant continues to infiltrate the agencies concerned with the welfare of our most vulnerable people.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the user-led, grassroots network Shaping Our Lives, also raised concerns about the partnership.
He said: “Organisations like MHF (and Mind and Rethink etc) hog the resources, the credibility and still largely sign up to a traditional psychiatric/medical model which isn’t really working and isn’t really helpful.
“For this sort of thing to be lurking as well means – well – what friends and allies have we really got, if such liaisons are underpinning organisations claiming to speak for us?”
Unum was once described by a senior US law official as an “outlaw company” and it has been repeatedly exposed in the US courts for its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people.
In 2011, Unum launched a major marketing campaign to promote the need for its income protection insurance (IPI) policies, just as the coalition began its three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing claimants of old-style incapacity benefit through the work capability assessment (WCA).
Disabled activists insist that the hated WCA is simply a public sector version of the tests used by companies like Unum to justify turning down valid IPI claims, and that by making the process of applying for the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA) harsh and stressful, it has made IPI look more attractive.
Three years ago, DNS revealed the existence of a Unum document from 2005 which bragged that government policy on disability assessment and management was “moving in the same direction” as Unum’s own views, and was “to a large extent being driven by our thinking and that of our close associates”.
In 2002 – six years before the Labour government launched the WCA and the new ESA – Unum submitted a detailed memo to the Commons work and pensions committee.
In the memo, Unum called for fundamental reform of the welfare system, and said the government “must ensure both that work always pays more than benefits, and more importantly that it is clearly seen to do so”, while laying out proposals with a strong resemblance to the ESA/WCA reforms that would be introduced several years later.
The Unum memo suggested retaining a form of IB for those “genuinely incapable of undertaking any work whatsoever”, as Labour did with the ESA support group.
It stressed in the memo that the company – then known as UnumProvident – was “confident that its policies and approach to [IPI] claim management and rehabilitation can be replicated more widely for those on IB” and that it would “particularly welcome the opportunity to put them into practice”.
Despite this memo, and other evidence, John Letizia, head of public affairs for Unum UK, said in a statement: “Unum does not and never has lobbied on the topic of welfare reform or related matters.”
He said: “As with many other businesses, Unum partners with various organisations on issues of mutual interest.
“Our research in this case aims to tackle the stigma of mental health in the workplace in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, a fantastic charity with who we wish to help reach and educate businesses on this important issue.”
The Mental Health Foundation refused to respond to the particular criticisms of Unum, but a spokesman said: “As a UK mental health charity that seeks to reach the broadest possible audience, we are always looking for ways to amplify our message and to develop new evidence to ensure everyone is able to enjoy good mental health.
“That includes entering into partnerships with companies to help increase our reach and our capacity to undertake new research.
“These are sometimes difficult judgements to make and we are guided by an assessment of whether the output of a partnership will break new ground and positively benefit people’s lives.
“To that end, we took a decision, which we stand by, to work with Unum on an important project which we are confident will uncover fresh insights on how employers can build a more supportive environment for people experiencing mental distress into their everyday business activity.”
He added: “On the issue of welfare reform, like many charities we have raised concerns about the disproportionate effect on mental health that some welfare reform measures have had.
“We remain concerned, and as an organisation that speaks truth to power, we continue to raise questions and promote debate through our policy, research and campaigning activities.
“We will not hesitate to raise any concerns directly with Unum, if needed, and have found them open to constructive dialogue.”
*Her book, Cash Not Care – The Planned Demolition Of The UK Welfare State, will be published later this year by New Generation Publishing