15 May 2006

DLA doctors 're-generation' begins
Using the Freedom of information Act, Benefits and Work has obtained an information note sent to decision makers in January 2006 which announces Phase 1 of an 'EMP Regeneration programme.

We don't yet have all the details of what sounds like an alarmingly Doctor Who inspired project. But we do know that two new DLA and AA Examining Medical Practitioner reports are being rolled out between February and July to replace the 6 existing reports.

The new report forms no longer require the doctor to take a statement from the claimant, which is instead being replaced by a detailed 'Typical day' section. It is claimed that the new forms will provide the decision maker with more information about how the claimant's condition affects their daily living. Doing away with the claimant's statement sounds like a positive move: they are entirely unnecessary where the claimant has already filled out a detailed claim pack and are the source of much bitter dispute at appeal hearings.

But we will reserve judgement on whether the new report forms actually produce better quality evidence than at present. The fact that Atos Origin feel the need to 're-generate' their doctors suggests an awareness of the current abysmal standards of some of the reports produced, but whether the changes are more about presentation than content remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we have a request for any other documents dealing with EMP regeneration to find out what else is in store . . . politeness and punctuality training, perhaps? Up-to-date medical knowledge even?

DLA doctors secrecy warnings
Back in February we revealed that Atos Origin Medical Services had instructed doctors examining DLA claimants to issue an oral warning if anyone is found to be making notes at a medical .

Doctors have been ordered to tell claimants that they should not 'seek to publicise' their notes because of 'data protection and confidentiality' issues. We believe the warning to be entirely legally inaccurate and asked our local MP, Jeremy Browne, to raise the issue. This he duly did and seems to have made the DWP rather cross by raising it with the health minister, Patricia Hewitt, rather than a minister in their own department.

We received a response from the DWP claiming that the warning simply sought to 'clarify' matters because doctors were unsure whether they should attach any notes written by claimants to the medical report if asked to do so. In the letter the DWP claim that they have to 'be mindful to ensure the rights of the employee participants, such as the doctors themselves, are protected. In this regard, doctors have certain rights to privacy under Data Protection legislation. The concluding sentence of the guidance was seeking to address this area'. The sole concession offered by the DWP was to say that they 'have asked that Medical Services consider amending the guidance provided to reflect that it is guidance and not intended to be an "official warning"'.

We weren't happy with this response and challenged the DWP to either provide us with the precise legislation or caselaw on which they were relying for their assertion that claimants have a duty of confidentiality to doctors or instruct Medical Services to cease issuing their warning. We have now received a response which fails to give any legal references at all, merely claiming that Atos Origin Medical Services have already been asked to review the 'guidance' to ensure that 'there is no ambiguity'. We will now be asking our MP to refer the matter to the Ombudsman.

Decision Maker's Exchange (DME) Issues 63 and 62
Issue 63 of DME is notable for a particularly mean spirited and, we suspect unlawful, item of guidance issued to decision makers. DM's have been asking what to do where someone sends for a date stamped DLA claim pack, but in the meantime downloads a claim pack from the internet, completes it and returns it along with a copy of the front page of the date stamped form. People do this in order to be able to get on with completing the form whilst waiting for the Benefits Enquiry Line to send one out, which can take two weeks or more. However decision makers are being told that they should ignore the date stamped sheet and treat the claim as being made on the date it is received.

DME's authors say this is because the double dated form has not been returned within 6 weeks, only one downloaded from the internet. The fact that the two forms are exactly the same and collect exactly the same information from the claimant seems to be irrelevant in their view.

Using a downloaded form whilst waiting for a double dated claim pack to be sent out is a strategy we have used ourselves in the past when working with claimants with variable conditions or chaotic lifestyles, with no objection from the DWP. There is no attempt to defraud or mislead the DWP and the only advantage gained is that claimants have the time to give detailed and accurate evidence to assist the decision maker. We don't believe that the Claims and Payments regulations can reasonably be interpreted to disallow this practice and we'd strongly advise anyone who has had their backdating refused in these circumstances to appeal. We'd be interested to hear from anyone who is doing so. Clearly, until this matter is resolved, however, it would be wiser not to send in downloaded claim packs with the front sheet from the double dated pack. Using the new claim pack which can be completed online may be a better alternative in some cases.

Issue 62 of DME has information on: how DMs should deal with unsigned double dated claim forms; the importance of obtaining reasons from claimants who fail to attend two medical examinations before disallowing or removing benefit; the importance of copying into appeal papers the questions sent to an EMP or GP as well as the medical report itself.

DLA and terminally ill people
Back in March we gave an update on our complaint that new DLA claim packs misled terminally ill people into believing they had to complete the whole pack when this is not the case. At that time the DWP admitted the packs were misleading but said they wouldn't make any changes until September. However, following questions put to the minister on our behalf by Conservative MP Anne Main the DWP have backed down. The online claim pack has already been corrected and the paper pack will be changed in time for the next print run in June. No hint of an apology, of course.

Post Office Card Accounts
We've obtained two documents which deal with pilots run in February of this year to reduce the number of Post Office Card Accounts. (DLA/AA Information note 15/06 & DLA/AA Information note 19/06) The cards are to be phased out altogether - something nobody was told when they were introduced for fear that people would refuse to use them - and two pilots have been targeted at DLA and AA claimants. Pilot C involved 500 claimants who have other benefits paid into a different account, whilst pilot B involved 4,000 claimants and private sector company A4e. Having misled people into believing that when giros and order books were effectively abolished they would still be able to get their benefits from their local post office using a no-cost account, the aim is now to 'persuade' claimants to open ordinary bank accounts - complete with charges - and do away with Post Office Card Accounts altogether. The pilots are intended to discover the most effective ways of achieving this.

National peoples march and rally
Sheffield Welfare Action Network is organising a national demonstration to challenge the proposed incapacity benefit reforms. It's to take place in Sheffield on 17th June, 2006. With participants assembling on Devonshire Green at 12.00pm for 12.30pm march. Music and speakers are being arranged.


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