New evidence proves that the controversial outsourcing contractor Atos should be stripped of all of its disability benefit assessment contracts, say disabled campaigners.
Fresh concerns about the behaviour of Atos and its assessors emerged after Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last week how an Atos nurse repeatedly lied about a disabled man he was assessing for personal independence payment (PIP).
The nurse, who is believed to be still carrying out assessments for Atos, stated in his report – in addition to a string of other incorrect statements – that Colin Stupples-Whyley had attended the PIP assessment alone, even though his partner had sat with him throughout the interview.
Now, following the publication of that story, other disabled claimants have come forward to describe to DNS how their Atos assessors “lied” about them in benefit assessment reports.
Former nurse Sue Hardy, who lectured on nursing for 22 years at the University of Bedfordshire, until she was forced to retire due to ill-health in 2013, said she was appalled when she read the report written by the Atos nurse who assessed her for the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA).
The report was littered with errors, but most worrying was the cognitive tests section, which was filled in by the assessor even though none of the tests had been carried out.
Hardy, who was accompanied by a friend to the assessment, said: “This nurse lied on my assessment form. Having just had to give up my 35-year career as a nurse and senior lecturer, I found her assessment erroneous in many areas.”
She appealed against the decision to place her in the work-related activity group of ESA, and won her appeal at tribunal, but also lodged a complaint with Atos, and with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).
In the NMC complaint, she said the assessor had “completely fabricated, and invented the results of the cognitive assessment”.
She told DNS: “I think Atos is a joke. How many people out there are being denied a fair assessment?
“Nurses have a duty of care to all patients and clients and are bound by their code of conduct.
“To omit an assessment or part thereof is negligence, and thus that duty of care is broken.
“Atos employ nurses alongside doctors and physiotherapists, who are bound by similar codes of conduct.
“So if the nurses are being caught fabricating assessment results, what about the other disciplines?
“It is very worrying, and Atos obviously can’t perform these assessments to the required standards, resulting in people missing out on their benefits.”
Although Atos handed over the ESA contract to another company earlier this year, it still has two major contracts to carry out PIP assessments.
Colleen Hardy [no relation to Sue Hardy], from Kent, has described how a report written by the Atos physiotherapist who assessed her was littered with either basic errors or deliberate untruths about the impact of several chronic health conditions, including depression, anxiety, a thyroid disorder, and fibromyalgia.
She was accompanied to the Atos building for the assessment by both a community psychiatric nurse and a friend, and both of them were able to dismiss the assessor’s claims that she had climbed a flight of stairs without help and by holding onto the bannister.
Hardy later told DWP that the assessor was “either unqualified to give an informed opinion or she is being blatantly misleading and/or obstructive with the actual evidence”, and that she had simplified the impact of the fibromyalgia to a “ridiculous extent”.
She said: “When I received my copy of the report, I was gobsmacked. It was full of inaccuracies and, let’s call a spade a spade here, lies!”
As a result of the assessment in July 2012, she was removed from the support group of ESA and placed in the work-related activity group.
After she appealed, a tribunal ruled that the original report was accurate, but still placed her back in the support group, although it did not reimburse her for the benefits she had lost in the meantime.
Hardy said: “Atos and all involved never once explained any of the outlined inaccuracies in that report and stood by the physiotherapist completely.
“I lost a fair amount of money, I lost confidence and my health suffered so much. This was all after the assessor deciding – despite all the professional opinion to the contrary she was shown – that in three months’ time I would be fit enough to work.”
She added: “I can’t believe that Atos are more than happy to allow a liar to continue working for them.”
Three other claimants have also come forward to accuse Atos assessors of lying in their reports.
One told DNS how her Atos assessor asked her three questions, two of which required one-word answers, and then told her that her medical records answered all of the other questions.
After giving the assessor a two-minute rundown of her week, she was “ushered out” of the assessment.
She said: “When I was told I had (of course) failed the test, scoring the usual ‘0’ for mental health issues, I was shocked to read the report, which stated the interview had lasted 25 minutes, and a whole raft of questions had been asked!
“To say the least, I was gobsmacked at this thick tome of utter fabrication.”
Another claimant, with conditions including diabetes, a chronic degenerative disease that has ruptured all but two of the discs in her neck, arthritis, high blood pressure, and panic attacks, was told she had scored zero points in her assessment.
She said: “The tissue of lies was unbelievable. It’s a bloody farce, the whole thing.”
Among the inaccuracies in the report, the assessor claimed the claimant had opened the door to the assessment centre, when her daughter had done so, and that she had no problem removing her coat and undoing the buttons, even though she had not been wearing a coat.
She said: “There was nothing to indicate any of the responses I’d given. They also stated I had no problems getting on the couch, [even though] they had to get me a step and she had to help me down.”
A third claimant – the fifth in all to describe their experiences – described how an Atos doctor wrote in his report that he had performed “squats” in front of him, and “repeatedly climbed on and off the assessment couch without problems”.
He said: “Not only is it impossible for me to squat, but the assessor actually had to provide me with steps to get onto the couch and help (alongside another person)… lift me on and off.”
Although a tribunal subsequently found the report to be accurate, despite a witness and statements from specialists and doctors saying it could not have happened, the assessment was subsequently “completely dismissed” at a supersession – which allows DWP to change a benefit decision if a claimant’s circumstances change or if the decision was made without knowledge of the full facts – requested by his MP.
He said: “The whole system is obscene and bordering on corrupt.”
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the campaign group New Approach, said he was now hearing of many PIP claimants who were experiencing the same kind of “fraudulent healthcare professional reports” that ESA claimants had been subjected to, allowing DWP decision-makers to disallow their claims.
He said: “I have yet to meet someone who thought their report accurately recorded the assessment and their impairment/illness. Seriously, no-one!
“Sadly, the abuse and horror that was meted out to ESA claimants is now going to come to DLA/PIP claimants on a scale hitherto unseen.
“I think many who have not experienced a work capability assessment and tribunal have been sceptical of the reports of abuse and fraud from Atos and the DWP, but unfortunately that will be happening to those making PIP claims now.
“The government has a target to cut half a million [PIP] claims… the only way to do that is to commit medical/welfare fraud on disabled people on a massive scale; just as they do with ESA.”
Lawyer and benefits expert Nick Dilworth, also a co-founder of New Approach, said he had helped hundreds of disabled people with appeals and requests for reconsiderations of benefit decisions, mainly those who had undergone testing for ESA eligibility by Atos.
He said it was “commonplace for question-marks to be raised by clients over inconsistencies in what had been said with the healthcare professional conducting face-to-face assessments”.
He said: “Clients would regularly allege that Atos lied over how long they had remained sitting or standing or [had been] seen walking from waiting areas to the examination room.
“The amount of time a claimant was reported as ‘sitting continuously’ simply wouldn’t tally with the timing on the ESA85 [assessment form] detailing how long the assessment lasted.
“You could see the same report remarking on how, within the same time, the ‘claimant rose unaided several times’; it didn’t add up.”
He said it was too early to say whether PIP assessments were any better than those for ESA.
Dilworth said he had been impressed when he attended an Atos PIP assessment, although “others have told me the whole report is ‘a complete joke’”.
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “Sadly none of these complaints about the appallingly low standard of Atos assessors comes as a surprise.
“Atos has consistently failed to meet the terms of their contracts for PIP assessments, with inaccessible centres still being used in many parts of the country.
“They are still unable to attract high-calibre staff and they should be stripped of the PIP contracts with immediate effect.”
John McArdle, co-founder of the Black Triangle campaign, said he agreed with Hardy’s concerns about assessors who were doctors, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, as well as nurses.
He said: “Private companies should be driven out of anything to do with the assessment of disabled people, because their first duty is to shareholders, to maximise profits.”
He said the concerns raised with DNS were just “the tip of a massive iceberg”.
He said: “Atos are still employing people who are demonstrably liars. It shows the General Medical Council [for doctors] and the NMC are not doing their job.”
DPAC researcher Anita Bellows added: “We have received similar complaints about PIP assessments.
“I would advise claimants to request the assessment to be audio-recorded and to bring somebody with them.
“If they are unhappy about the outcome, they should request the assessor’s report. In the meantime, this needs to be formally investigated.”
An Atos spokeswoman said: “All assessment services for ESA transferred to a new provider earlier this year.
“As part of that process, we transferred all the claimant data we held to the DWP.
“Therefore we now have no way to look back at these cases and investigate but can assure you that we had a stringent complaints policy in place when we ran the contract and all complaints made were fully investigated.”
When asked if that meant that Atos had no record of complaints made against its staff while it was carrying out the WCA contract, she declined to comment.
An NMC spokeswoman said the organisation did not have any data on complaints about Atos assessors, and could not confirm any details about a specific complaint unless it reached a “fitness to practice” hearing.