The much-criticised government contractor Atos Healthcare is openly blaming a shortage of doctors willing to work for the company for causing lengthy delays in assessing disabled people for their “fitness for work”.
The recruitment crisis is now so severe that staff on the Atos customer helpline have taken to asking claimants seeking information about their delayed applications if they know any doctors who might be willing to work for them.
Four months ago, Disability News Service revealed that Atos executives had held crisis meetings with civil servants across the country, where they admitted to a drastic shortage of doctors on their books.
Atos is currently performing more than 10,000 work capability assessments (WCAs) a week on claimants of old-style incapacity benefit to test their eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA), as well as assessing thousands of new ESA claimants every week.
Anne*, from London, said Atos received her ESA application on 19 September last year.
She has now rung up the Atos helpline three times – speaking to three different advisers – to ask why she has not yet been given a date for a WCA.
On the last two occasions, she was told the delays were caused by a severe shortage of doctors, and was warned delays were so long that it had taken one claimant eight months to have their application processed.
Anne was told: “We are doing our utmost, but they can’t find enough doctors with the right criteria.”
She told Disability News Service: “They can’t get enough doctors, that’s the basic reason for the delays. I was told they had put postings everywhere for these jobs, but they can’t get them.
“The last one I called said: ‘If you know of any, can you please send them our way?'”
Anne said the delays were “shocking” and “an absolute disgrace”, while the extended period on a lower level of benefit – the same rate as jobseeker’s allowance – had caused her significant financial problems.
She said: “I have ended up selling my jewellery, and I have been starving myself. I haven’t paid my council tax bill for the last couple of months.”
An Atos spokeswoman declined to comment on the shortage of doctors, but said: “We endeavour to see everyone as swiftly as possible in the order in which we receive their claim.
“It is right that we don’t rush people through and focus on quality and giving every individual the time they need in an assessment which is an important part of the ESA claim process.
“This is specialist work and as with other healthcare organisations we cannot always see people as quickly as we would like.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said it was “working closely with Atos to ensure they can deliver both the volumes and quality of assessments that we require of them”.
He said Atos was continuing to “successfully recruit health professionals”, and that the WCA was “carried out by a broad range of health professionals, including doctors, nurses and physiotherapists”.
The latest revelations will yet again heighten the sense of doom surrounding Atos, which has been one of the focal points of protests from the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement.
Protesters have accused the outsourcing giant of helping to drive through the government’s “brutal cuts agenda”, devastating the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people.
Disabled activists have repeatedly pointed to links between the way Atos carries out the assessments, and relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other premature deaths among those being assessed.
This week, the Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams obtained a short debate in the Commons about the work of Atos.
He said there had been reports of some disabled people waiting more than six months for their WCA, as well as scheduling problems, last-minute cancellations and difficulty in reaching assessment centres.
Williams, who represents a rural constituency in west Wales, said he had constituents who were facing delays to the appeals process of “months or even years”.
And he said DWP staff were now even referring disabled people to him for help with their appeal or the speed of their claim.
He said: “In one case, a DWP member of staff told my constituent to contact me to complain about the service.”
Williams said he had received an “almost endless series of representations” about Atos and the WCA, and added: “There are concerns about the extent to which the employees of assessment providers are being wholly sympathetic, about the huge backlog of cases that is leading to delays and, frankly, about the instances there have been of administrative incompetence.”
Mike Penning, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said the length of time people were having to wait for their WCA was increasing, but that the government was seeking “more capacity”.
DWP announced last year that it was changing its approach to the WCA, by bringing in new providers – in addition to Atos – to carry out assessments “on a regional basis”.
Penning said that one reason why many cases were having to be dealt with by tribunals on appeal was that the system had been based on assessing as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and “we got too many wrong”.
He said: “We have now improved the quality and ensured that our people spend time with the applicants, but that has caused a backlog. We are addressing that capacity issue.”
*Not her real name. Her name was included in the original story but removed in December 2021 at her request for personal reasons
13 February 2014