Sickness benefit contractor Atos Healthcare to review letters | BBC News | 24 August 2012

August 25, 2012

From BBC News, 24 August 2012 (Story by Andrew Fagg).

The government contractor Atos Healthcare has said it will review all the correspondence it sends to people claiming sickness benefits.

The announcement follows a “mistaken comment” in a letter – seen by BBC News – to a claimant with depression.

Atos incorrectly told the claimant that assessors were not required to be specifically trained in mental health.

The private firm said it would ensure that its letters were “clear and easy to understand” in future.

Atos carried out nearly three quarters of a million face-to-face assessments last year on people claiming the new sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance.

‘Panic attack'

One of the claimants, Claire Whitwell, from Stockton on Tees, prompted Atos's review.

Ms Whitwell has social anxiety disorder and depression, but was declared fit to work following a medical assessment last year. The decision was later overturned by an appeals tribunal.

In June, she was asked to attend another assessment to see whether her condition had changed.

Ms Whitwell said she had a panic attack, in part because she said the assessor did not know anything about depression, and complained to Atos over the incident earlier this month.

In the reply on 13 August, seen by BBC News, an Atos customer relations manager explained there was no requirement for assessors to be specifically trained in mental health.

However, an Atos spokeswoman has now said this comment was “mistaken”, insisting that all assessors do have specific mental health training.

“We have improved the way we assess those with fluctuating and mental health conditions,” the spokeswoman said.

“All our doctors, nurses and physiotherapists have received specific training in mental health and there are now mental function champions in place across our centres to offer.”

‘No training'

But Ms Whitwell said Atos had made a terrible mistake and was now trying desperately to backtrack.

“The person who did my last two medicals was stated as a registered nurse. She clearly didn't have any mental health training,” she said.

“The [Department for Work and Pensions] may as well have got a decision from a dentist.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said her case raised the broader issue of how people with mental illnesses are assessed.

He said:

“Over a third of people apply for Employment and Support Allowance because they have mental health problems. We know that many are wrongly declared fit for work.

“We want the government to make sure that the health professionals assessing people with mental health problems have an appropriate level of mental health expertise.”

In statements, the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos said they were working with disability groups to improve the medical tests, known as the Work Capability Assessment, and had recruited 60 “mental function champions” to give advice to the doctors and nurses carrying out the tests.

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