Health Social Affairs

Disability assessments profoundly increase people’s vulnerability

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The government have persistently denied any “causal relationship” between their welfare reforms and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, despite an existing correlation. Ministers have also denied a link between disability assessments and an increase in mental distress and ill health.

Figures released last year show that between December 2011 to February 2014, 4,010 people died after being told they were fit for work, following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). 40,680 died within a year of undergoing the WCA, making a bleak mockery of any claim that the WCA is a real and valid “health assessment” of any kind. Or that our welfare system is “supportive” to those in most need, in any real or meaningful sense. Those people were clearly not at all “fit for work.” The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics from the public.

Research last year from Leonard Cheshire, a charity that works with disabled people, also showed that the assessments are making people who are ill more sick. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) said they found the assessment had a negative impact on their mental or physical health, or both. The same number described the face to face appointment as very stressful.

David Sugg would agree with those research findings. David suffered a life threatening subarachnoid haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) because of an aneurysm (a swelling and very weakened point in a blood vessel) in 2013, and now faces more life saving surgery because he has developed two more aneurysms that threatens to rupture, putting him at risk of another catastrophic brain haemorrhage.

Whilst he waits for his operation, he has been told that if his blood pressure goes up, he is likely to die.

He had a Work Capability Assessment with Maximus this week. He was so afraid of the adverse health impacts that the strain of the WCA may have on him that he left a letter for the local coroner, to be opened in the event of his sudden death.

The letter said:

 “You may be looking into the reason for my death. I am hoping I can save you some time. This uncaring and spiteful Tory government killed me.”

He told me:

“My neuro-surgeon says I mustn’t get stressed, but I have been called by the Department for Work and Pensions for an assessment even though I’ve told them about my situation.

If I don’t go for an assessment my benefits will be stopped. But I fear it may cost me my life.”

Although David survived his appointment, he has been suffering with a violent headache since, and hasn’t been able to eat for a week.

He added:

That appointment might still kill me. If my blood pressure goes up I could be dead before I hit the floor. I asked the assessor why she was putting my life at risk, but she said it wasn’t her decision.”

David said that the situation he is in has “Orwellian” parallels. It’s a terrible choice to have to make: he either risks his life and complies with the assessment or loses his lifeline support – his benefit is the only income he has.

He explained to me that like many people needing to claim Employment Support Allowance – which is a very misleading name for a sickness benefit –  he had worked all of his life before becoming ill. He worked in IT and security until a couple of years ago. He became unemployed at that time, and was struggling to find work.:

“I’d paid tax and national insurance all my life – since I was 15,” he said.

“The battle to get Job Seekers Allowance was so stressful I actually think that led me to having the aneurysm in the first place. Then I had to battle to get support. The first work capability assessment I had was just six months after I’d had seven-hour brain surgery.”

Aneurisms are quite often caused by an increase in blood pressure. The majority of people don’t survive a subarachnoid haemorrhage, and those who do are remarkably lucky if they escape without serious disability. Most people don’t survive if they have a second one.

David added that his assessor recognised how inappropriate the appointment was, telling him you shouldn’t actually be here.”

Despite the fact that he is awaiting life saving surgery, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demanded that David was assessed again. He returned the form, explaining that he was awaiting life saving surgery and must avoid stress, but to his horror, was forced to attend nonetheless.

“It’s brutal bullying by the DWP. No wonder people are committing suicide, pushed over the edge. You either die because of your condition or from suicide. All I would have to do is stop taking my pills for a couple of days and I would die,” he told me.

Debbie Abrahams, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said that David’s case is far from unique.

She said:

“This WCA process, revised by this Government, is not only not fit for purpose, there is growing evidence of the harm it is doing. These assessments need to be completely overhauled. Labour want to see a holistic, person-centred approach, not the dehumanising, harmful, inefficient process we have now.”

David wrote to his own MP, Stephen Metcalfe, outlining his extremely distressing circumstances, and was told that Stephen would contact the Department for Work and Pensions, but did not yet receive a response.

The system is designed to deter successful claims

I co-run a support group on Facebook for sick and disabled people claiming disability benefits. I know from the accounts and everyday experience of many others just how stressful the assessment process is. It’s a terrible state of affairs when people who are already struggling with severe health problems are made even more vulnerable because of callous cost-cutting government policies. Many of the personal accounts I see on a daily basis are also very distressing to read.

The assessment is not always an end to the stress and strain, either. Quite often, people are forced to challenge wrong decisions, because the WCA is designed to find ways of passing people off as “fit for work” regardless of whether they actually are, cutting their benefit. It’s worth remembering that people needing sickness benefits have already been assessed as unfit for work by their own doctors.

If people need to appeal a wrong decision, they first have to go through a mandatory review  – where the DWP “reconsider” the decision. Sickness benefit is stopped at this stage, leaving people who are often very ill without any lifeline income. Most can’t claim jobseekers allowance because they are too ill to work and so cannot meet the harsh and rigid conditionality requirements of that benefit. There is no set time limit for how long the DWP have to undertake the mandatory review. That means that people may be waiting weeks with no money at all to live on.

No-one may appeal until after their review is completed. The appeal process is also very stressful and intimidating, it usually entails another wait of months.

The revolving door of assessments and psychological distress

David is not the only person to contact me this week.

George Vranjkovic has been extremely anxious and distressed about his Work Capability Assessment, too. He is very afraid at the thought that he may lose his lifeline support. Like many others, he has had several assessments. It’s fairly common experience to have to go through an appeal, only to get another appointment within three months of a successful outcome.

He told me:

I took 5 days filling out the assessment form by hand and I sent it in 12 days before my deadline. But 5 days before the deadline I got a letter saying it had still not been received, so I rang them, and I got some bloke who chuckled. He said it probably got lost and was there anything else he could do.

I blew my top I’m afraid and said he could effing apologise for losing my form!!! He said he deserved to be treated with respect. I was so upset I shouted not if you sit there laughing at desperate people you don’t . Anyway, I ended up filling in the form on line, printing it off and sending one version by fax, and one version by special delivery, which is what I was instructed to do by them… £22.00 that cost me.”

The form showed up, according to another advisor that George spoke to the next day, but by then he had already paid out for the fax and special delivery and was told the likelihood of getting the £22.00 back was pretty remote. This is someone relying on just a lifeline benefit, calculated to meet only basic living costs – essentials: food, fuel and shelter.

Previously, George has been left without any money to live on by the DWP, without them providing any reason. That’s absolutely unacceptable.

“For 6 months when they cut my money off completely,  I was made to feel like a criminal. I was spoken to so badly on the phone. I wasn’t being sanctioned. They just weren’t paying me.

 This is all just another example of the abject cruelty we, as honest people, are put through,” he said

Like many other disabled people, George has also worked previously, co-running a photographic service.

George talked to me over a period of 24 hours before his assessment yesterday. He hasn’t slept for weeks. He really needed someone to support him emotionally. He was extremely anxious, agitated and afraid. He knows that the WCA is designed to try and cut costs and take lifeline support from sick and disabled people.

He told me that he is someone who usually copes, and doesn’t like to make a fuss. He said “I try not to fall to pieces in public.” He was in a state of sheer panic, however, when he contacted me.

When he arrived for his appointment yesterday, George said that the assessor tried to reschedule the assessment. His distress was so great by this time that he absolutely refused to leave until the assessment was carried out. He simply couldn’t face going through the strain of waiting again.

“He asked me how the rescheduling of the test made me feel.  He told me that it wasn’t the first time today he’d heard that forms had got lost or went missing, he asked me if I’d ever thought about committing suicide. Which I have, the last time being a year and a half ago when the DWP cut off my money for 6 months,” he said.

A study published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last year showed a correlation between worsening mental health and assessments under the WCA. The study linked the WCA tests with an additional 590 suicides, increased mental health problems and hundreds of thousands of antidepressant prescriptions

In a letter to the Guardian, the study’s main author, Benjamin Barr, said it was crucial the DWP takes seriously concerns that WCAs are “severely damaging” mental health. He called on the department to release data it holds to researchers to allow further analysis of the health impact of the controversial test.

It’s well established that psychological health also has an adverse impact on physical health, too. Many people with chronic illness report consistently that the strain of the assessment brings about an exacerbation of their symptoms.

 Calls for the WCA to be scrapped

Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”

It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit.

Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

The WCA is not only unfit for purpose, arbitrary and cruel; it is also one of the most shocking political betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.

 

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About

Social affairs editor for Scisco Media. Sue is an independent researcher and public interest writer with a particular focus on social affairs; policy, democracy, ideology, techniques of persuasion/propaganda, the political misuse of psychology, human rights and welfare. She also contributes regularly to Welfare Weekly, and other publications as a freelance writer. Her main home is the Politics and Insights blog site.

She started writing four years ago because she felt that the mainstream media has become increasingly unreliable over the past five years, reflecting a triumph for the glittering generalities and dogma of a neoliberal elite. We need to challenge this and re-frame the presented mainstream debates, too. The media tend to set the agenda and establish “priorities”, which often divert the public from much more pressing and real sociopolitical issues.

Independent writers have a role as witnesses; recording events and experiences, gathering evidence, analysis, insights and truths that are accessible to as many people and organisations as possible. We have an undemocratic, neoliberal government that reflect the interests of a minority – the wealthy and powerful 1% – by systematically dispossessing the majority. We must constantly expose and challenge that and actively participate in democracy, presenting clear, wholly inclusive alternative narratives.