Friday, September 30, 2011

Profiting from the sick and disabled

Disabled people and their supporters taking part in today’s nationwide action against the company enforcing government benefit cuts have asked doctors and nurses organisations to end their relationship with Atos Healthcare.

The global corporation which operates in over 40 countries was brought in by the New Labour government and was then awarded a £300 million three-year contract extension by the ConDems, with clear instructions to reduce claimant numbers.

A new benefit, employment support allowance (ESA), has replaced incapacity benefit and every claimant is being assessed by Atos. Thousands have been disqualified from claiming ESA by Atos staff.

The government claims that figures show that the "vast majority" of claimants for ESA are fit for work. But four out of 10 of those who appealed against the decision by Atos to deny them benefits are successful on appeal, a process that costs the taxpayer £50m a year.

The open letter says: “Since 1995, when medical assessments for incapacity benefit were privatised and taken out of public services, standards have steadily declined. But Atos has brought this to a new low. While none of the work tests deserve to be called a ‘medical’ as they have no basis in patient welfare, since Atos started carrying out the ESA tests in 2008, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people with severe illness and disability being assessed as fit for work and denied benefits.”

Campaigners told the British Medical Journal and Royal College of Nursing: "We are outraged that Atos is profiting from denying those of us who are sick or disabled, the benefits we need to survive and maintain our level of health.”

The letter adds: “A Channel 4 News report in 27 July 2011 acknowledged what thousands have been saying: it interviewed the heartbroken partner of a critically ill man whom Atos denied his entitlement on grounds that he was ‘fit for work’ – he died less than three months later. How many more people have died following such cruel and callous treatment?”

In August, the it was reported that 12 Atos doctors are under investigation by the General Medical Council for improper conduct. The Royal College of Psychiatrists and many others have strongly criticised the devastating effect the Atos exam and cuts have had on patients.

GP Margaret McCartney, writing in the British Medical Journal, has questioned the ethics of doctors performing assessments without access to patients’ medical records, and the lack of specialist knowledge of physiotherapists and general nurses employed by Atos.

Earlier this year, Atos, whose staff assess around 11,000 benefit claimants a week, was severely criticised by Parliament’s work and pensions select committee after it found that many people had "not received the level of service from Atos which they can reasonably expect".

The open letter insists that doctors’ and nurses’ ethics are being “corrupted” by Atos’ offers of higher salaries and daytime reduced work hours, adding: “Claimants rightly fear that most Atos assessors are uncaring and prejudiced – they work to targets which have nothing to do with patients’ individual health needs or with the realities of the job market which sick and disabled people are being thrown into.

“The stress of the Atos examinations has hastened deaths and caused a number of people to commit suicide. For many others, it is exacerbating their already fragile health condition.” Atos has taken action to shut down websites which have attacked the company.

The Labour government introduced work capability assessments in 2008 when it replaced incapacity benefit and income support for new claimants with ESA. The Coalition government has accelerated the changes – with the support of Labour, naturally.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

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