Doctors slam benefits reviews as 'a disaster for patients'

Quality generic of a doctor's stethascope.
Medics: Conference told of 'devastating' impact of assessments.

A doctors' conference has heard that a controversial benefits assessment centre has been dubbed "Lourdes", because claimants "go in sick and come out cured".

But the annual BMA Scotland GPs conference heard claims that many of those judged by the Departement and Work Pensions successfully appealed.

Glasgow GP Georgina Brown raised a laugh when she told the conference in Clydebank the new nickname for Atos' Scottish headquarters in the city.

She said: "The assessment office is called Corunna House, but to locals it's known as Lourdes - because you go in sick and apparently you come out cured."

Dr Brown described the government-driven system to review patients' benefits as "an embarrassment to the coalition government and a disaster for patients".

She said: "Ensuring the poor and sick become only poorer achieves nothing but pushing up the unemployment figures, increasing social inequality, increasing health inequalities and stripping patients of their security and self respect.

"They are struggling to navigate a system that does not support the most vulnerable in our society. Around 40% of appeals are successful. What does this say about a system where they get it wrong at least 40% of the time?"

She said GPs provided medical information to the DWP about every claimant undergoing a fitness to work assessment. But the 20+-page assessment resulted in the wrong outcome in many cases, resulting in patients going cap in hand for money they were entitled to.

Dr Brown concluded: "If Atos took notice of the information originally provided, there'd be no need for GPs to prop up a failing system. It's not the job of public services to bail out the system. It must be sorted out at the root level and the problems fixed."

Lanarkshire doctor Colette Maule, a negotiator on the BMA's Scottish GP Committee, said GPs in many areas were being overwhelmed by the number of patients seeking extra information for appeals.

She said: "GPs did not create this system and many are struggling to cope with the additional demands it is making on them. This is impacting on practice time, which would otherwise have been spent on health concerns. The appeals process is causing distress to thousands of people with long term health conditions who are being deemed fit for work.

"These assessments can have a devastating effect on patients' mental and physical health."

An Atos Healthcare spokesman said: "We will consider any relevant medical evidence presented by claimants during the process that will enable the DWP to make a more informed decision on benefit entitlement.

"We only proactively write out to GPs for further medical evidence where we believe that receiving it may mean we can avoid a face-to-face assessment for the most disabled and unwell. This leads to around 17% of claimants not needing to attend an assessment.

"It is wrong to suggest appeals are the fault of Atos Healthcare. Of the 15% of benefit decisions appealed, recent figures show that an inaccuracy in the report from Atos Healthcare is the reason in only 0.3% of cases."

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