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8 February 2013 | Adam Leach
The Department for Work & Pensions' (DWP) “light-touch” approach to managing its medical assessment contract has allowed the provider Atos Healthcare (www.atoshealthcare.com) to conduct “thousands of poorly administered tests”.
A report published today by the Committee of Public Accounts, Department for Work and Pensions: Contract management of medical services, said there are “serious questions” over the quality of the process for measuring whether claimants qualify for benefits, known as the Work Capability Assessment. The committee said the finding that one third of successful appeals were approved on the grounds the original decision was wrong without requiring new evidence suggested the process itself was flawed.
The MPs said while Atos Healthcare, as the contractor, shoulders the responsibility for the failings, most of the problems lie with the DWP. According to the report, a “light-touch approach to managing the contract” had left it too reliant on information provided by the provider. This, it said, gave rise to the perception the DWP is “too relaxed” about whether or not value for money is being delivered. It also called for more challenging quality targets to be set.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said in a statement: “The department is too often just accepting what Atos tells it. It seems reluctant to challenge the contractor. It has failed to withhold payment for poor performance and rarely checked that it is being correctly charged.” She also called for a “substantial shake-up” in how DWP manages the contract.
In November last year professor Malcolm Harrington, an occupational health expert, published an independent review of the Work Capability Assessment, which is done on an annual basis. He recommended DWP should monitor Atos’ performance more closely. He added DWP decision makers and Atos staff should work more closely together and discuss independent cases, but admitted building a closer relationship between the two would take time.
In response employment minister Mark Hoban said: “This report completely fails to recognise the considerable improvements we have made to the Work Capability Assessment since coming to power in 2010, having inherited a system from the last government that was not fit for purpose. We're implementing all of professor Harrington's recommendations, and the percentage of people getting long term unconditional support has more than doubled in the last two years.”
A spokesman for Atos Healthcare said: “We know this is a difficult process for people and have worked with the DWP to make improvements in how we carry out the work capability assessments, so we can provide their decision makers with the information they need to make the right decision first time. If an assessment does not meet the needs of the DWP decision maker, we will redo it before a benefit decision is made.