I am currently going through the awful process of claiming Employment and Support Allowance. This is the ‘unable-to-work’ disability benefit that replaced Incapacity Benefit in the last couple of years.
To put it mildly – it’s a stressful process. When you have a disability, you try to focus on the things you can do. You think about alternatives, or ways in which you can take part. However, ESA turns all that on its head – and you have to detail all the things you can’t do. It’s a depressing process. It’s also a long one.
To claim the benefit you begin by being signed off sick by your GP, once your work has ended. You get put onto an assessment rate. After approx 13 weeks you’re sent a form called the ESA50. It’s a lengthy form, very repetitive – where you have to justify such criteria as why you would struggle to pick up an empty cardboard box repeatedly, safely and reliably.
You’re expected to put medical evidence together with this form. When the system was set up – the Department of Work and Pensions or ATOS were supposed to request medical evidence on your behalf, but they did so on very few cases. Therefore claimants were being turned down for a lack of medical evidence! The claimant would then have to gather the medical evidence they thought had already been asked for in order to appeal and win the case – causing unnecessary stress, and time and tax payers money to be wasted.
So many claimants began to ask their doctors for evidence upfront. I’ve had two experiences with this – the first time my GP said not to worry, she would be asked automatically as part of the process. Of course no form was sent. Since then, many GPs have realised the system is failing, and some have changed their attitudes having seen the aftermath for their patients.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see my GP again, and she was very sympathetic. She immediately said of course she would, and she’d make it as detailed as possible. A few days later I received it – and it was really helpful. There was no charge for it.
I also wrote to my consultant – and did get a letter, but it wasn’t as good as my letter from my GP. It simply briefly summarised the kind of symptoms someone with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome would experience generally, which I’m not sure will help as much – but it didn’t hurt either.
So in both instances, I was lucky.
A couple of days ago the following article on BBC News caught my eye. It stated that Bro Taf, a Welsh medical committee in South Wales have sent out a letter to their GPs suggesting that they stop writing supporting letters for their patients.
I was horrified.
In April 2013 legal aid to assist claimants to fight incorrect benefit decisions was stopped. Citizens Advice Bureau, often many people’s first point of call for assistance saw similar cuts, which vastly reduced the amount of people they could help both apply for benefits, or help appeal. There were even reports of advisors being made redundant half-way through appeals processes, leaving those facing a bureaucratic and difficult system alone.
The system has been made harder, and further cuts are expected.
The one support system patients still hope for is from their GP. The system favours letters from consultants – however, consultants are frequently discharging patients to reduce their caseload. Other people only see their consultants infrequently, and some have conditions that fall between specialities so get bounced between departments faster than you can say the NHS.
I believe Bro Taf have now withdrawn their letter – but it still seems to be down to the discretion of the GPs whether to write supportive letters or not, and this may have given them more a reason to say no.
How can it be that the system doesn’t automatically request medical evidence as part of the process? Shouldn’t that be step one?
Have you been refused a letter of support by your GP? Did you complaint, or just have to submit your claim without it?