GPs warn the system for assessing whether people are too sick to work is becoming increasingly stringent, leaving severely unwell patients without benefits. Hiba Mahamadi investigates.
‘I’ve got patients with Parkinson’s disease who can’t speak and rely on carers for feeding being told they’re fit for work.’
Birmingham GP Dr MayJay Ali is not alone. More than half of the 645 GPs responding to a Pulse survey last year said their patients had been refused welfare benefits despite their GP’s opinion that they were unable to work. In other words, GPs’ expert opinions about their patients’ health are being ignored.
Official statistics back them up. Pulse’s analysis of figures from the Department for Work and Pensions reveals 68% of employment support allowance (ESA) claimants assessed as ‘fit for work’ at their initial assessment later successfully had the decision overturned. To put this into context, in 2010, only 36% of decisions were overturned.
GPs warn a small but key change this year is the latest in a series of moves by the DWP that serve to undermine GPs’ role as advocates for their patients – and as experts on their health.
Under the system, people off work long term undergo a DWP-run ‘workplace capability assessment’ to determine their eligibility for ESA. If this deems a person ‘fit for work’, the GP is informed by letter.
This year, this letter was changed to inform GPs that, as the DWP has declared the patient fit for work, the GP ‘does not need to provide any more fit notes’.
Detrimental impact on patients
GPs strongly criticised the change, pointing out that they are the medical experts and their view on a patient’s fitness for work has more validity than that of a non-medically trained assessor. They said the move undermined their role.
It also affects the GP-patient relationship. As then RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard put it at the time: ‘GPs are not benefits assessors and must never be used as barriers for patients to receive benefits when they are entitled to them, as ultimately, this can have a detrimental impact on their health.’
Following the criticism, the DWP made amendments. But even the revised letter says: ‘We no longer need [fit notes] for your patient as they are fit for work.’ The concession, in small print, says GPs can offer fit notes if the patient ‘asks you for evidence for a reconsideration or appeal’.
Dr Ali says ministers are taking an increasingly heavy-handed approach to financial support for sick people: ‘I’ve noticed the [Government’s] assessments don’t seem as fair as they used to be. A lot of my patients whom I would expect to be eligible for benefits are told they’re fit for work.’
And the latest DWP figures show one in three of the 250,000 initial ESA work assessments between April 2018 and March 2019 resulted in claimants being deemed fit to work and refused benefits.
Croydon GP Dr Adnan Siddiqui says: ‘The Government is using assessments as though there is some sort of objective way to assess these things. I usually tell patients the whole set-up is geared to be superficial, to make them fail. But I say, if you persevere, you will most likely win.’
While some patients’ claims may not be genuine, the large proportion of successful appeals indicates a problem with initial DWP assessments. Of almost 2,000 appeals by patients with mental health and behavioural disorders, 72% saw the DWP decision overturned, while 68% of some 1,700 patients with musculoskeletal conditions also appealed successfully.
But often damage has already been done. GPs say appeals can take anywhere from a few weeks to 12 months, bringing anxiety and financial distress for patients. Those suffering from mental health conditions often experience a worsening of symptoms.
Dr Siddiqui says the DWP wrote to him about three patients, telling him they were suicidal after the assessment. This came as no surprise, he said, given that one patient compared the assessment centre to a ‘police interrogation cell’.
All this means extra work for GPs. Dr Ali says: ‘I have to write to the DWP to ask why my patients’ benefits are being stopped and explain why I think they need them. That’s not really my role.’
The DWP assessments also mean GPs come under pressure from patients. Matthew Johnson, a lecturer in politics at Lancaster University spoke to 11 GPs in 2017 about this issue as part of research on deprivation in North East England.
He says: ‘There is evidence to suggest GPs with concern for the wellbeing of their patients often feel a duty to support them as they navigate the benefits system.
‘This can lead to practices in which GPs prescribe medication recognised by assessors as an indicator of serious pain or ill health. This is apparent in the use of opioid painkillers, which ought to be of serious concern and would be avoided were the benefits system different’.
The DWP argues its assessments are carried out by health professionals given specific training in assessing people with a range of mental and physical health conditions. It says it works closely with its contractor to ensure assessments are of the ‘highest possible standard’.