A nurse failed to mention a disabled woman’s near-fatal asthma attacks, accidental overdoses and repeated blackouts, in one of the clearest examples yet of a dishonest benefits assessment report, secret recordings have revealed.
A video recording of the assessment also shows that the nurse lied about the way disabled activist Catherine Scarlett made her way from a stairlift to a reclining chair to begin the assessment.
Scarlett had been so distrustful of the personal independence payment (PIP) system that she made both video and audio recordings of her face-to-face assessment, which was carried out at her home in Yorkshire in May.
She says the recordings and assessment report prove she was right to do so.
They show how the nurse – employed by the government contractor Atos Healthcare – repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of what she was told by Scarlett.
This allowed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to lower her entitlement from the enhanced rate to just the standard rate for the daily living element of PIP, although she was allowed to stay on the enhanced rate for mobility.
At one point, Scarlett is heard on the recording telling the nurse that on several occasions she had accidentally double-dosed the powerful opioid pain medication Tramadol, but the nurse translates that in her written report as “occasionally forgets to take her medication”.
Scarlett also tells the nurse that she cannot read for long periods “because I black out”, but this ends up in the report as “she can read although she doesn’t read for long due to concentration”.
When Scarlett describes how she has previously experienced “near-fatal asthma attacks”, the nurse writes this up in her report as episodes of being “wheezy and short of breath”, which “comes and goes”.
And when the nurse asks her if she has ever thought of taking her own life, Scarlett tells her that she has felt like ending her life “lots of times” and that she experiences “impulsive urges to commit suicide and things like that”.
This is translated as “she has had thoughts of not wanting to be here”.
Scarlett is also furious that the nurse suggested that she did not need to carry out a physical examination if that meant she would be “wiped out for the week”.
When Scarlett agreed and said she was “not really” keen on having the examination, the nurse was able to use her decision to decline the physical tests to justify relying instead on an inaccurate description of how she claimed she saw Scarlett “grip and operate a crutch in each hand” as she was walking from a chairlift to her seat, in order to play down her need for support for bathing and dressing.
DWP later admitted – when it eventually overturned its original findings – that she lacked the necessary grip and strength in her right hand and arm “to be able to dress yourself reliably and in a timely manner”.
The video clearly shows Scarlett walking with a stooped posture, leaning heavily on the crutches, and flopping into the chair, but not touching its arms.
But the nurse writes this up as: “She walked from the bottom of the stairs to her specialist reclining chair using a crutch in each hand. She walked very slowly with normal posture.
“She lowered herself into the chair by putting her hands on the chair and lowered herself into it.”
Scarlett believes that her case, and many others she has been passed by other disabled people through social media, show that DWP is “colluding” with Atos in order to cut people’s support.
She said: “I have been shocked at the effect on my mental health and the thoughts it has brought up for me and can understand why it pushes so many people completely over the edge.
“I’m lucky to have strong family, friends and professional support that keeps me going but so many people aren’t as lucky and so are very vulnerable to devastating mental health deterioration and the consequences of that.
“The whole system needs fully investigating and changing to protect those people.”
Following the decision to reduce her support, a mandatory reconsideration (MR) – DWP’s own internal review process – endorsed that decision, although the department finally agreed last month to return her daily living to the enhanced rate when she appealed against the MR decision.
In that decision, DWP accepted that Scarlett did after all need help to dress and take a bath.
For technical reasons, DNS was not able to share the video recording with Atos and DWP, but the audio recording was shared with their press offices.
DNS originally agreed to omit the allegations connected with the video recording so that DWP would comment on the evidence provided solely by the audio recording.
But this morning, after agreeing to this and asking for extra time to produce a response – the audio recording was originally sent to DWP and Atos on Tuesday afternoon – a DWP spokeswoman failed to comment on any of the evidence contained in the audio recording.
Instead, she merely pointed out that Scarlett’s PIP entitlement was eventually restored, after she appealed, to the daily living enhanced rate.
She also repeated previous DWP statements about the “strict quality standards” required of assessment providers, and the “on-going quality audits” that assessors are subjected to, as well as mentioning the complaints procedures available to PIP claimants.
An Atos spokesman refused to comment on the evidence at all.
He said: “We’re informed we won’t have access to the video which accompanies the audio without which the points raised cannot be looked into as verification is simply not possible.”
Scarlett’s case is one of 22 that have been passed to Labour MP Neil Coyle (see separate story), who has pledged to take up concerns about allegations of dishonest assessment reports when parliament returns from its summer recess next month.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been investigating since last November claims that healthcare professionals working for Atos and Capita have been lying in their assessment reports.
DNS has now compiled more than 200 cases in which PIP claimants say their assessors produced dishonest reports.
The investigation shows that assessors – most of them nurses – have repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations.
But DWP, Capita and Atos have all refused to launch inquiries into the claims of widespread dishonesty.
Picture: Scarlett flops into her seat at the start of the assessment, watched by her husband