Stormont puts Mid Ulster’s sick through the mill but won’t reveal the cost

Mental health funding under the spotlight
Mental health funding under the spotlight

Over 5,200 sick people have been put through medical assessments in Mid Ulster over the last year, just so they can keep their benefits.

The interviews, which usually last between 30-40mins, are supposed to tell the government whether a person on Employment Support Allowance [ESA] is fit to return to work.

Only ever paid to people who are sick, ESA is basically incapacity benefit under a new guise and in Mid Ulster, 8,310 people are claiming an average of £124 per week.

In order to keep getting such support from the government, ESA recipients are forced to undergo medical assessments every three months to every three years.

But a local advice service has questioned the competence of these interviews as often the assessor has no expertise in the ESA recipient’s condition and around 60 per cent of those they appealed in just a six month period of 2015 were overturned.

The Department of Social Development’s own figures show that most medical assessments in August last year were carried out by nurses, with 240 assessing paperwork or conducting face-to-face interviews with ESA clients. A further 140 physiotherapists were involved, but just six doctors out of 386 assessments.

“Some don’t have any experience in certain areas,” said Andrea Bedell from Mid Ulster Citizens Advice. “But they are expected to provide a prognosis in 30-40mins.

“We see clients with a lot of problems with work capability assessments because of the rules of the benefit.

“We have seen people with mental health problems and the health professional they have been sent to for their work capability assessment is maybe a physiotherapist or an Occupational Therapist.

“The GP knows the person, and how long does it take the health service to diagnose a patient?” she asked.

According to Mrs Bedell around 80% of ESA claimants in Northern Ireland have a condition that puts them in the ‘support group’ - despite the government target of 10%. This means it is impossible for them to work - and this will not change.

But, even in these circumstances, they are still assessed - an exercise that not only increases the workload of GPs and advice workers who have to step in on many appeals, but that also wastes valuable public money she said.

But we will never know how much DSD pays for these medical assessments, because they are carried out by a private company and they refuse to reveal the cost under a ‘commercial sensitivity clause’.

“That doesn’t seem like transparent government to me,” added Mrs Bedell.