The Dreaded Brown Envelope – ESA News

The Dreaded Brown Envelope – ESA News

This year my health has gone downhill somewhat.  I suppose it has been doing that for some time, but when I finished my previous job I just knew I couldn’t do it anymore.  I was a total mess, and my list of needs and adjustments from a job was getting longer than the job description itself.

In April I applied for Employment and Support Allowance for the first time.  For those of you that don’t know much about it, it’s the benefit that replaced Incapacity Benefit – for disabled people who can no longer work.

There are three rates – the Assessment Rate, the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) and the Support Group.  If placed in the WRAG they admit you’re too ill to work currently, but feel you should be able to work with support in the future.  People in this group have to attend regular work-related meetings with companies who receive bonuses if they can get you into work; can be forced into unlimited work-placements and can even sanction you.  So in one breath they admit people in this group cannot work, and then force them too – and stop their benefits if they refuse.  The Support Group means they feel you cannot work, and do not expect you to anytime soon.

The way the system is supposed to work is that you receive the assessment rate for 13 weeks, then either a decision maker at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) decides if you should go in a group or be found ‘fit for work.’  If they feel they don’t have enough information they can send you for a medical with ATOS.  The assessment rate is lasting much longer than 13 weeks, however, which is probably because a large amount of people are being sent for the medicals despite copious medical evidence with their applications that should give the decision maker enough information to decide.

The medical tests themselves are highly controversial as it’s been shown those carrying them out are under a lot of pressure to find the person fit for work.  The tests are extremely limited in scope, and most people are indeed found fit for work and then have to appeal it.  In most cases this decision is overturned at tribunal level – showing the system is flawed.   The whole process causes a lot of stress to the claimant and this horror vastly increased in October when they decided that if you were found fit for work and appealed, you’d no longer be paid the assessment rate while you waited for the tribunal – which can take up to a year to happen.  The benefit starts at £56.80 a week for under 25s, and £71.70 for over 25s.  This amount is what people have to live on, and removing it is beyond cruel.

In July I was told I would be having a medical.  While expecting this, I was still annoyed as my claim included excellent medical evidence.  My GP had written a long letter, as well as my Occupational Therapist. I also had a pile of letters from my consultants including the top specialist in Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome in Britain.

But I heard nothing for six months.  When October passed my worry increased dramatically.  I wondered what would happen if I was found fit for work and had no income while I appealed.  I fretted about how I’d pay the rent for the accessible bungalow I live in, or pay for the treatment the NHS won’t cover.

I’ve also been through all this before with Disability Living Allowance and it wasn’t a very fun time.  I pretty much had a mini-break down and had to go through two tribunals.  You can read about that starting here  and follow the whole saga under the tag ‘benefit claim’.

Having had bad news so often before, and living in constant fear of bad news from the DWP  – I have a certain reaction every time I spot their distinctive letter I call the ‘dreaded brown envelope.’

I’m a little superstitious, even though I know it’s silly.  I say the rhyme when I see a lone magpie, I throw spilt salt over my shoulder and I make a wish when the numbers on a clock are all the same.  I’d been lying awake for some hours trying to sleep (not uncommon) when I spotted it was 2:22am.  I made a wish.  “Please.  Please just let me know either way before Christmas.”

The next morning I was hobbling past the front door when it caught my eye.  The dreaded brown envelope.  My heart began to thump and my breath caught in my throat.  I opened it quickly, and tried to make sense of it.  Two words stood out to me – Support Group.

Relief flared through me, but as I read further it stated that I’d been placed in the Support Group from July – 30th November.

When you get put in a group a time of claim goes along with it, and I was aware that people have been placed in a group before and thought they were okay, only to find out that by the time they’d been told which group they were in, their claim had finished.  Was that what had happened to me?

I immediately phoned the DWP and spoke to a nice lady who looked my claim up, and agreed that the letters were confusing, but those dates were referring to back pay.  They agreed I should have gone into the Support Group from July, and up until November 30th had been on the assessment rate.  So I’d get back pay up of the difference between the Assessment Rate and Support Group Rate until that date.  Then from the 30th November my claim will run for two years.

I began to cry – and apologised to the poor woman.  I explained I was just so relieved.  She responded kindly by saying I didn’t have to worry about any medicals, or sending anymore sick notes.

I honestly can’t believe I got put into the Support Group first time and didn’t have to go through a medical.  It seems incredibly rare with ESA not to have a medical, and even more so to be put straight into the Support Group.

I can’t even begin to put into words what this means to me.  It should mean some financial stability during this time – until the Personal Independence Payments rollout.

Credit to: Cieleke

Credit to: Cieleke

GPs Told Not to Support ESA Claims

GPs Told Not to Support ESA Claims

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 Citizens Advice Bureau Logo.

The Citizens Advice Bureau Logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?