A disabled man with cancer has been forced to wait more than a year for a decision on his claim for the coalition’s new disability benefit, thanks to a “catalogue of incompetence” by the company paid to assess him.
Disability News Service (DNS) has reported on a series of disabled claimants who have had to wait up to nine months to hear whether they will be awarded the new personal independence payment (PIP), which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA).
But Ian Pearson has now been waiting since 17 April 2013, following a string of mistakes by Atos Healthcare, and a failure by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure his claim was dealt with properly.
Atos has already been allowed to pull out early of its contract to assess people for employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new out-of-work disability benefit – after being hounded by disabled campaigners and MPs over its performance.
But it is now beginning to face similar concerns over its two lucrative contracts to assess people for PIP, in London and the south of England, and in Scotland and the north.
While Pearson has been waiting more than a year for his claim to be assessed, his health condition has worsened, and he has struggled to pay for transport for the regular trips from his home in Barrow-in-Furness to hospital. His only income is his ESA.
Pearson, who has problems understanding forms and paperwork, said the delays had left him “frustrated”, and struggling both financially and emotionally.
He said: “The stress has made my treatment more difficult because I have been worried about how I am going to cope.
“How can people in power treat people like me like this? I am fed up with being treated as though I don’t matter.”
Lucy Mayou, the Citizens Advice and Macmillan welfare benefits adviser who has been helping him, said the way his claim had been dealt with by Atos and DWP had been “one fiasco after another”.
She said PIP claims were generally taking about six months, but added: “I haven’t come across any that have lasted this long and have been such a catalogue of errors.
“It just feels like nobody cares. His only income is ESA, and PIP would have been a huge help to him throughout the year had it been awarded when it should have been.”
Pearson’s ordeal began last June, with a 90-mile round-trip to an Atos assessment in Lancaster. When he arrived at the assessment centre, Atos kept him waiting for an hour before telling him they had no record of his appointment, and sending him home.
They later admitted they had made a mistake and agreed to arrange a home visit.
In August, an Atos assessor visited Pearson at home, and told him he would hear within about a fortnight whether his claim had been successful.
But he heard nothing, so Mayou contacted DWP’s PIP department on 4 October, and was told that Atos had yet to pass on the results of the assessment.
Later that month, Atos admitted that it had been unable to find a paper version of the assessment and did not have an electronic version.
Mayou continued to press DWP and Atos, submitting official complaints, and writing to Pearson’s MP, Labour’s John Woodcock.
On 24 January, Atos told Woodcock that it had been “experiencing issues in uploading Mr Pearson’s report”, but hoped to “have this resolved shortly”.
But still Atos was unable to send a completed file to DWP.
By 24 February, Atos was claiming the file had finally been sent to DWP.
Two weeks later, DWP said Atos had still not sent through Pearson’s file, and told Mayou that “the responsibility for chasing up the file lies with the client”.
Following another complaint, DWP’s PIP department revealed what had happened to cause the latest delay: Atos had admitted that its assessor had – after making an amendment to Pearson’s file – mistakenly thought it had been sent to DWP.
Four days later, on 11 March, Atos again claimed that it had sent the file to DWP.
Another delay followed, with no hint that the claim was about to be resolved, and when Mayou contacted DWP yet again, on 26 March, she was told that the results of Pearson’s Atos assessment were still outstanding.
This time, Atos was claiming that it needed to make some “audit changes” to his file.
On 17 April, DWP finally confirmed that it had received the file, but the fiasco was still not over.
DWP had now decided that the Atos assessment report contained “serious inconsistencies and a lack of information”, so it was unable to make a decision.
Atos was told to talk directly to a healthcare professional of Pearson’s choosing – his GP.
Even then, there was one last delay… because the DWP case worker was off sick.
This week, Pearson is still waiting for a decision on his PIP claim, nearly 13 months after it was submitted.
Mayou said: “When he should have been concentrating on his treatment, he has had the added worry and stress of trying to sort out a catalogue of incompetence.
“And to be told by DWP that it was the client’s responsibility to chase up Atos was beyond comprehension.
“I think it is unbelievable that there does not seem to be any kind of accountability.”
Despite Pearson’s ordeal, DWP has so far refused to apologise.
A DWP spokesman said: “PIP is a completely new benefit with a new face-to-face assessment and regular reviews.
“In some cases this end-to-end claims process is taking longer than the old system of disability living allowance, which relied on a self-assessment form.
“We are working with providers to ensure that all the steps in the process are as smooth as they can be and the benefit is back-dated so no one is left out-of-pocket.”
An Atos spokesman said: “PIP is a new benefit and there have been some early issues with the end-to-end process, including the part for which we are responsible, the assessment.
“DWP and the providers are working hard to increase capacity and reduce the backlog.
“In this particular case there were some specific problems relating to the completion of a full and accurate report.
“We will be writing to the claimant to apologise.”
Meanwhile, the Commons work and pensions committee will hold a public meeting in Newcastle on Tuesday (13 May) to hear from members of the public about their experiences of ESA and the work capability assessment (WCA).
The meeting will take place in Newcastle United Football Club’s Moncur Suite between 10.30am and 12.30pm, and evidence from the meeting will inform the committee’s inquiry into ESA and the WCA.
8 May 2014