New doubts have surfaced about the ability of a controversial US company to make improvements to the “fitness for work” assessment system, after it appears to have won the contract by drastically under-cutting its competitor.
The fight to take over the work capability assessment (WCA) contract had been narrowed down to just two companies, Maximus and Interserve.
But two separate sources close to the outsourcing industry have told Disability News Service (DNS) that Maximus was awarded the contract by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) because it bid about £50 million less per year than its rival.
Both sources confirmed that this means Maximus will have far less leeway than Interserve would have had to fund improvements to the WCA system.
If there are future problems – the delivery of the WCA has been beset by difficulties since its introduction by the Labour government in 2008 – there will be little if any funding available to put them right.
One of the industry sources said it now looked as if delivery of the WCA by Maximus would be no better than the performance of Atos, which became the focus of anger from disabled activists over the way it carried out the assessments.
Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “We had been aware that DWP were having difficulty finding any firm to take over the discredited assessment process but the news that it has now been awarded to a company making a massively lower tender than the only other bidder is further bad news for disabled people, who will continue to be subjected to a tickbox assessment process which is not fit for purpose.
“However, DPAC and other campaign groups intend to make sure that involvement with this process becomes as toxic for Maximus as it did for Atos who have been forced to quit early, paying a substantial fine for doing so.”
A Maximus spokesman said: “We are not aware of the details of other bids for this contract – that is a matter for DWP.
“Our bid contains a significant number of innovations and fresh ideas for the delivery of an improved customer experience of the [assessments].
“DWP will publish contract details in due course. We are not able to release contractual information ahead of that.”
Interserve declined to comment.
A DWP spokesman said: “The value of the contract, specification and redacted terms and conditions and schedules will be published on Contracts Finder in the usual way by [the] end [of] November.
“The exact value of the contract will depend on performance over the lifetime of the contract.”
He added: “The department have confidence in Maximus’s ability to deliver this contract.
“The priority for Maximus will be to transition the service smoothly from the current provider and stabilise the service to deliver the best service possible for claimants, increase the volume of assessments carried out and reduce waiting times without compromising quality.”
Last week, DNS reported that the government sparked fury after appointing Maximus to carry out the three-and-a-half year WCA contract, despite its lengthy record of discrimination, incompetence and alleged fraud in the US.
A string of scandals has been unearthed by UK researchers since Maximus was handed a contract to deliver the government’s new health and work service in England and Wales earlier this year. The company is also a provider on the government’s much-criticised Work Programme.
Maximus has said that these concerns were “historic issues overwhelmingly”, while there was now a “different leadership team” in place which had “put those issues right”.
Under the new contract, Maximus will carry out hundreds of thousands of WCAs – and other health-related assessments – every year across England, Wales and Scotland, starting from 1 March 2015.
Maximus says it wants to improve the WCA – which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance – by recruiting more medical professionals specialising in mental health, improving assessments of claimants with fluctuating conditions, and introducing new ways to help customers complete forms and access independent advice.
Maximus will be working alongside Atos during a transition period before taking over in March.
This week it also emerged that Dr Michael O’Donnell, the former medical director of Atos, which he joined from the US insurance giant Unum, is now medical director of Health Management Ltd, a Maximus subsidiary.
Last year, DNS secured a copy of a document from 2005 in which O’Donnell bragged that Unum had “always been at the leading edge of disability assessment and management”, and that government policy was now “moving in the same direction” as “our views and understanding”, and was “to a large extent being driven by our thinking and that of our close associates”.
The Maximus spokesman said: “Our subsidiary Health Management Ltd will have no role in fulfilling the HDAS [health and disability assessment services] contract.
“Dr O’Donnell is a valued employee of Health Management Ltd. He was not involved in our bid for the HDAS contract and will not be involved in its delivery.”
6 November 2014