General practitioner

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Doctors highlight unfair benefits assessments

Vulnerable benefits claimants are missing out on crucial support because they are not assessed in a holistic way, doctors leaders say.

The BMA tells a review of the WCA (work capability assessment) that process-driven computer-based systems make it difficult for healthcare professionals to exercise their professional judgement.

The WCA is used to assess the capability of people claiming the ESA (employment and support allowance), which provides financial help to those unable to work because of illness or disability.

It was introduced in October 2008, along with a commitment to produce an independent report into the way it is working for each of its first five years.

WCA review chair Malcolm Harrington is gathering evidence for the third annual report.

In its submission, the BMA says: ‘We are concerned that … some of the most vulnerable and weakest in our society are not receiving the support that they need through the ESA. The fact that a high proportion of initial decisions are overturned on appeal to tribunals reinforces these concerns.’

Extra GP workloads

The BMA says GPs also face extra workload as rejected claimants seek additional evidence to support their appeals.

‘Anecdotally, we are aware of a large recent increase in such requests to GPs,’ the BMA says.

‘Although GPs are not under contractual obligation to provide such evidence directly to their patients, these requests place GPs in a difficult position that can potentially compromise the doctor-patient relationship, as well as taking up limited GP appointment time.’

The parliamentary briefing The Work Capability Assessment for ESA, published last month, says 60 per cent of claimants applying for the ESA for the first time were declared fit for work but 41 per cent of those decisions were appealed. Of those, 38 per cent of appeals were upheld.

This year’s BMA annual representative meeting agreed that the WCA, administered by French firm Atos Origin, was inadequate and should be replaced.

Professor Harrington is expected to deliver his report by the end of 2012.

Last year’s report says there is no evidence that the assessment software influences healthcare professionals’ decisions or results in impersonal assessments.

However, it does recommend increased use of ‘free text’ to describe individual claimants accurately.