THOUSANDS of vulnerable claimants are losing out on benefits because GPs are not filling in forms correctly, Scotland on Sunday has learned.
The massive reform process – currently reassessing the sickness benefit claims of thousands of people in Scotland and the UK – has already attracted widespread controversy, with some claiming they are being forced to look for jobs when they cannot work.
New details emerging suggest that a dysfunctional system is to blame, with benefits being wrongly withdrawn purely because forms have not been completed.
Atos, the company supervising the assessments, has suggested that thousands of people are being called in for a review of their benefits because GPs have not sent back forms setting out their medical history as requested. If they had, their benefits might have been left unaltered.
Critics of the government’s welfare reform programme have told MSPs that the welfare system is “broken” and have called for a better approach to helping people on benefits, who are missing out because of an overly complex system.
There is also evidence that when people appeal the loss of their benefits, some GPs are charging up to £100 for a medical report because it falls outside their contract.
There are also accusations that Atos, acting on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, has failed to engage properly with GPs, leading to erroneous decisions being made. Others claim the views of medical professionals with knowledge of people’s cases – such as psychiatrists and specialist staff – are not being considered before claimants are assessed.
The row revolves around Britain’s 1.5 million claimants of incapacity benefit, who are having their claims reassessed as the UK government seeks to trim the welfare budget. Figures last week showed that a third are being adjudged capable of working, while a further 41 per cent have been deemed too unwell but told to consider a return to the labour market at a later date.
Evidence presented to Holyrood’s welfare reform committee has now pointed out a eries of bureaucratic errors in the process. It is understood that when considering a person’s benefits eligibility, Atos asks for GP reports in 15 per cent of cases as it seeks evidence on whether to allow the benefit to continue. MSPs have been told that, in as many as half of these cases, requests do not get answered.
Benefits may be getting slashed as a result. Scotland on Sunday understands that, in cases where people appeal a reduction in their benefits, two-thirds are successful thanks to the submission of evidence from GPs that had not been retrieved at the start. The result, it is claimed, is a massive cost to the taxpayer, with appeals costing an estimated £60 million.
Welfare rights groups also claim many people are likely to be falling through the net. Even if they appeal, it is understood that the process takes around six months to be heard, adding to the stress on people already suffering from physical or mental problems.
Labour MSP Michael McMahon, convener of Holyrood’s welfare reform committee, said last night: “It is shocking that some of our most vulnerable are being left in limbo as sets of papers are sent to and from Atos and GPs.”
He added: “We know how much pressure GPs are under, but it simply is unacceptable for disabled Scots to lose their benefits because lengthy forms haven’t been completed. For GPs to then get paid to write a letter when the decision to axe benefits is appealed shows how broken the system is.”
The committee heard evidence that when people request GP support in an appeal, they are sometimes being charged by the family doctor.
Sarah Flavell, of Gordon Rural Action, told MSPs: “In a particular instance, the GP just said ‘I haven’t got time to do it,’ and then said that the report would cost £96. If we did not have that report, perhaps we would not have been successful in the appeal.”
But GPs say the problem is that they are struggling to meet the extra workload. One GP in the Springburn area of Glasgow, Dr Georgina Brown, told MSPs that requests for claimant letters were taking up 12 per cent of her consulting time.
She also revealed that there is a patchwork system: “Some practices have stopped doing letters altogether because they do not have the resources. Of the six practices in the health centre that I work in, three of us do letters and the other three have had to stop because they cannot manage.”
She said GPs were aware of the problems but “there has to be a point at which they put their own health first and get home before eight o’clock at night”.
Others blamed the DWP and Atos, saying they were failing to contact GPs properly at the start of the process.
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association said that GPs would provide letters when requested by the DWP or Atos, but a request from patients or solicitors for support during appeals was a “private request” not covered in their contract.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have worked hard to reduce the workload on Scottish GPs in order that they can focus on improving outcomes for patients, and we are keen to protect necessary time for GPs to be involved in these vital reforms.
“DWP does not currently publish information on assessments, and if they can tell us about where there are problems in gathering the necessary information from GPs, including where the absence of evidence is affecting individuals’ entitlement to benefits, then we can work with them and health boards to find ways to make the system work better.”
An Atos Healthcare spokesman said: “We contact GPs asking for further medical evidence only when we believe that this may avert the need for a face-to-face assessment.”
Employment minister Mark Hoban said last week: “Getting the Work Capability Assessment right first time is my absolute priority, and I am committed to continually improving the process.”