A watchdog is examining the failure of two healthcare regulators to punish nurses, paramedics and physiotherapists who write dishonest benefit assessment reports.
The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) is looking at concerns about the way regulators deal with complaints about nurses, physiotherapists and paramedics who carry out personal independence payment (PIP) assessments on behalf of the outsourcing giants Capita and Atos.
About 300 disabled people have come forward over the last year to tell Disability News Service (DNS) how assessors working for Atos and Capita wrote dishonest PIP assessment reports, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Many raised concerns about the apparent refusal of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to take their complaints seriously.
Now PSA has told DNS that it has begun to examine how the regulators deal with those complaints.
Among the evidence it will be considering are last week’s DNS reports on data released by DWP to campaigner John Slater under freedom of information laws, which included figures that showed that up to 180 PIP assessors had been the subject of at least four complaints each in three-month periods in 2016.
It comes as the Commons work and pensions select committee published its findings into the assessment processes for both PIP and employment and support allowance, the out-of-work disability benefit.
But the committee’s report failed to address the issue of regulators who neglect to hold dishonest assessors to account.
David Martin, PSA’s concerns and appointments officer, said: “We recognised that there is concern amongst members of the public with the role played by healthcare professionals in the PIP assessment process and about the response of regulators to the complaints they receive about them.
“We have therefore initiated a discussion with the regulators to find out more about their approach to the concerns they receive.”
He added: “We wrote to the regulators in mid-January asking them to tell us about their experience of the issue and their approach to it.
“We are hoping to explore if there are any specific difficulties the regulators face when considering these cases.
“We also want to explore with them if the PIP assessment process presents challenges to professionalism that may require the regulators to produce guidance for their registrants.”
Martin said PSA would “consider all the feedback we receive”, and that PIP claimants with evidence about how NMC and HCPC had dealt with complaints about assessors could contact his organisation through its website.
PSA, which is accountable to parliament, is responsible for overseeing nine UK healthcare regulators, including HCPC and NMC.
Martin stressed that PSA was not itself a regulator and has no powers to direct NMC or HCPC “to take a particular approach”, and he said it could not investigate individual cases on behalf of individuals.
He said: “Our role is to report on the regulator’s performance and identify areas where they can improve.
“We do work closely with them to improve professional regulation and we anticipate they will want to address this issue positively with us.”
PSA was contacted last year by disabled activist Mark Lucas, who has twice appealed successfully against the results of what he believes were dishonest PIP assessments.
He has lodged a complaint with HCPC over its failure to discipline an occupational therapist who assessed him for PIP.
Lucas has twice been given zero points after PIP assessments, but on both occasions was later awarded nine points – and eligibility for the PIP standard daily living rate – after appealing to a tribunal.
Frustrated at HCPC’s failure to take his complaint seriously, he contacted PSA.
PSA has the power to look at individual cases that have not been dealt with properly, and potentially refer them to the high court – but only if they reached a full HCPC or NMC fitness to practise hearing, which they rarely do – but also to look at wider problems with the regulators in particular areas, such as how they deal with complaints about PIP assessors.
Lucas believes DWP has been using HCPC and NMC to help “legitimise bad medical assessments”, and that the two regulators are failing to take the action necessary over nurses, physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals who lie in their assessment reports.
He welcomed PSA’s decision to begin an investigation but said he had hoped the watchdog would have issued a public call for information about dishonest assessors and announce a wider inquiry than simply contacting the two regulators.
He said: “The PSA have the power to refer individual cases to the high court, but will they use that power?
“I suspect if they do it will be a long drawn out affair and probably too late to have any real effect.”
He said he believed that embarrassing and shaming NMC and HCPC were now “probably the most effective weapons we have”.
An HCPC spokeswoman said: “We can confirm we have received the PSA’s request for further information on our approach to this issue. We will be responding to them directly.”
NMC had not commented by noon today (Thursday).