From BBC News, 8 January 2016.
Disability benefit assessments have doubled in cost to £579m a year but targets are still being missed, the National Audit Office has said.
The spending watchdog found the quality of the tests was also not improving despite significant changes.
Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the public accounts committee, said the cost was “staggering” and sick and disabled people needed “a better deal”.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it would look into the findings.
Disability charities said the assessment system was still failing claimants.
Health assessments for Employment and Support Allowance are carried out to ensure claimants are eligible for benefits.
Private provider Atos quit its contract in 2014 and was replaced last year by US firm Maximus.
The new contract requires an increased number of face-to-face assessments – with more staff needed to carry them out.
But the NAO said “recent performance shows the department [DWP] has not tackled – and may even have exacerbated” problems over waiting times and targets.
Expected savings to the welfare budget had been reduced from £1.1bn over the next three years to £400m, it said.
The report also said there had been a struggle to recruit enough specialist medical staff to meet demand, while rising salaries had contributed to the rise in the average cost of each assessment – from £115 to £190.
This meant it would cost £595m to carry out the 3.4 million assessments needed by the 2018-19.
Despite increasing the size of its performance management team, the DWP “continues to struggle with setting targets and requirements with clear evidence”, it continued.
At least £76m of taxpayers' money had also been wasted by the failure to get a new IT system up and running – more than two years after it was supposed to be in place, the watchdog added.
Ms Hillier said:
“The department's approach has been unclear, its targets untested and consistently missed and future delivery is under threat.
“With the annual cost of assessments now expected to rise to a staggering £579m in 2016-17, taxpayers have been left to foot the bill.
“The department needs to do more to ensure private providers deliver a better deal for sick and disabled people as assessments have a huge impact on their ability to access vital cash to live with dignity.”
Ensure ‘better deal'
The head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, said the DWP had “addressed some of its immediate operational issues in managing contracted-out health and disability assessments”.
But he said the government needed to “take action to break a perpetuating cycle of optimistic targets, contractual underperformance and costly recovery”.
A DWP spokesman said it would consider the report, adding: “We are determined to support more people into work and provide individuals who can't with the correct support that they need – the effective assessment of people's abilities is key to this.”
Shadow minister for disabled people, Debbie Abrahams, said the report exposed a “shambles”, adding “too many disabled people have been badly let down by these assessments”.
And Dan Scorer, head of policy at the charity Mencap, said “people with a learning disability who rely on the support from benefits are still suffering from a system that fails to help the people it is designed for”.