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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, 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
30 September 2011

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Simone says:

I am very much concerned on the atos tests for learning disabled. My daughter passed her test. However it caused her much anxiety on receiving a letter she barely understood. She has a mild disability but is moderate DLA. Firstly she could not even travel there. Neither could she understand the man who telephoned and passed the phone call to me. She spent most of the day crying and worrying about it. She could not understand the map of how to get there. She could not relate her medical condition to the doctor, nor answer all his questions. It came at a time when we were waiting for a lot of medical results and caused me as her carer much worry. She was seeing a lot of specialists at the time for different things and it was uncaring to call her during that time. My daughter passed the test but at present she has me to represent her and give those details over. Many learning disabled haven't got an advocate to speak up for them or parents to support them and I feel this is unfair. They should at least be given an advocate who understands their disability and who can represent them fully. Much the same when they are expected to find work when education has left many with very little. She can't even handle the money she has in her pocket or use the phone for official phone calls.. Job centre staff who have no disability training and who can not offer anything for learning disabled. If government is expecting them to be adults when they have not been given appropriate education to cope with an adult life then they are at fault not young disabled. The Atos assessments are unfair. One can not cover a history of disability in such a short time. The Atos doctor should take the medical history of the patient and how it affects their lives. Many can speak up for themselves but there are many who can't. They have no voice.

ann arky says:
My heart felt sypathy for you and duaghter, but you are not alone. Up and down this country people with similar and worse disabilities are being processed in an inhumane automated system. As you have said, most do not have a voice and are incapable of defending themselves against what is nothing less than an attack on their dignity and welbeing. This has to get out to the general public by demonstrations, protests, leafleting and the media. If they can't defend themselves then we have to do it for them. ann arky

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