A Yorkshire woman with multiple degenerative conditions has criticised a DWP Work Capability Assessment contractor after they cancelled 4 separate appointments in a row.
Delia (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is registered partially sighted, has osteo-arthritis, chondrocalcinosis and osteopenia. She also has asthma and has recurrent bouts of depression. Both the visual and arthritis conditions are degenerative, meaning they will continue to worsen over time. She has been claiming Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) to cover her daily living expenses, being placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), an unemployment benefit for people who due to illness or disability are unable to work at present, but whom the DWP consider may be capable of work at some time in the future.
Work Capability Assessments (WCA) began in 2008, and were overhauled in 2011. By the decision of the coalition government, all ESA claimants are to be reassessed regularly. ATOS carried out the assessments initially until the contract for this was transferred to Maximus in 2015.
As part of the reassessment of claimants, Delia was written to in early September 2016 to fill out an ESA50 form. This is the same lengthy form that new claimants would need to fill in. Delia was then asked to attend the Maximus Westbourne Green Health Assessment Centre in Bradford in early January 2017.
Due to the vision loss and worried that the assessor’s report will contain, according to Delia, “once again many lies as in the previous assessment by Atos in 2011”, Delia planned to attend this appointment with the support of her daughter, while her son-in-law took unpaid time off work for babysitting duties during the appointment. Yet as they were close to the Assessment Centre and with only 25 minutes to go before the allotted time, she was informed the appointment had been cancelled and to await notification of another booking.
A second date was duly planned for the end of January, again to be supported by her daughter and son-in-law, only for this appointment to be cancelled 35 minutes before it was due to commence.
Delia was asked to attend the centre for the third time towards the end of February. This third attempt was cancelled 80 minutes before it was due to start.
A fourth appointment letter for the end of March was received – on the same day as she received another letter cancelling it.
With the cancellation letter came notice from Maximus that as they had already been responsible for multiple cancellations, the appointment would now be a home visit (to prevent further inconvenience) although the wait for this would be about 12 weeks.
After 6 months of avoidable stress and uncertainty, and not expecting the situation to be resolved or to receive an appointment for a further 3 months, Delia booked a flight to leave 8 days later to spend a week with her sister in Switzerland. Only 3 days before departure, Delia received a phone call informing her that her home visit had been allocated for the week she was away. Now having had to cancel this appointment herself Delia must attend its replacement or face benefit sanctions.
The impact of these continued cancellations has been far reaching. Delia says, “I am a voluntary worker, the extra stress and time requirements of attending nullified appointments has affected my availability and motivation. My daughter’s family have been directly impacted on financially due to my son-in-law 3 times taking unpaid leave from work. I also missed attending key family events back in Switzerland, as not knowing when the next appointment would come meant I couldn’t plan ahead and book flights.”
On a personal level the impact is most marked. The what can only be described as a fear, of potentially losing your primary source of income, comes with obvious anxieties, but to face this extra stress on multiple separate occasions spanning 6 months, each of which gets you no nearer the resolution, whilst managing multiple health conditions is what Delia has and continues to experience until she can actually be assessed.
Delia says, “My asthma is out of control at the minute, and I am having trouble sleeping as a result of the extra stress I am suffering because of this situation. The Action for Blind People supported me in the assessment in 2011, with the RNIB handling the appeal after being told that I “did not have limited capability for work” (due to the lies in the assessment report and the decision maker not following guidelines). Before going to court, I was told that following a review of the case I was placed in the WRAG of ESA. The staff at Jobcentre Plus have agreed the likelihood of me finding employment with my sight, mobility issues and age [early 60s] is absolutely non-existent. Also that due to the daily strong pain medication (on prescription) I have to take because of the osteo-arthritis and chondrocalcinosis, the staff say that I am absolutely not fit to work.”
Delia adds, “Since I also list a mental health condition in my ESA50 form why do they [Maximus] think it is OK to keep cancelling my assessment? Why are they failing to appreciate the extra stress this is putting me under? I feel under their control. My life has being put on hold and I feel powerless to do anything about it. If following the assessment in 2011, I am classed as not well enough to work and have submitted medical evidence with the ESA50 form to show that my degenerative conditions have all much worsened since, I fail to understand how anybody could consider that I am now fit for employment.”
Delia’s case is not unique. The online world is full of many stories of repeated cancellations by Maximus, including an article by Karen Lorenz, dated January 2016, who following an ESA cancellation of her own and witnessing that of many others, contacted the Department for Work and Pensions, with a Freedom of Information request. She asked what percentage of Maximus appointments were cancelled. This request for information was denied by the DWP.
There is also outrage at the apparent double standards within the system, as Maximus appear to have the power to cancel assessments without repercussions, whilst all claimants are clearly told in writing that failure to attend the review could lead to sanctions and the ultimate loss of benefit payments. In a report published in December 2015, Crisis found that 39% of homeless service users surveyed had been sanctioned.
Whatever the reasoning behind these issues within Maximus, whether linked to staff numbers or turnover, company policy and protocols or simply not allowing enough time per claimant in a bid to maximise revenue, it is a situation that needs tackling swiftly.
Maximus was contacted regarding issues raised in this article but has so far declined to comment.
Delia still awaits her face to face assessment.
By Sam Heaton