A regulatory body has received more than 1,600 complaints in the last five years about nurses who have carried out benefits assessments for three private sector contractors, new figures obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) suggest.
The figures were passed to DNS by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), following a freedom of information request.
They suggest that about seven per cent of approximately 4,800 complaints a year received by the NMC over the last five years have been linked to nurses working for a benefits assessment contractor.
They were released this week as DNS published a major investigation that shows how healthcare professionals – mostly nurses – working for two of the contractors have lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations in reports compiled for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The investigation has compiled evidence from more than 20 disabled people who have contacted DNS over the last year or have commented on previous DNS news stories to claim that their assessors lied repeatedly in the reports.
The evidence suggests a far-reaching, institutional problem that stretches across DWP and the two private sector contractors – Atos Healthcare and Capita – that carry out the personal independence payment (PIP) assessments on its behalf.
The alleged dishonesty includes assessors: refusing to accept further written evidence from medical experts; wrongly claiming that detailed physical examinations had been carried out during the assessment; refusing to list all of a claimant’s medications; ignoring or misreporting key information told to them during the assessment; and reporting that a claimant had refused to co-operate with a physical examination, when they were unable to complete it because of their impairment.
Atos carries out face-to-face assessments for PIP in Scotland, the north of England, London and southern England, and until 2015 also carried out work capability assessments (WCAs), which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
WCAs are now carried out by the US outsourcing giant Maximus – which took over the contract from Atos following years of complaints about its honesty, competence and ethical practices – while Capita carries out PIP assessments in Wales and central England.
Between the three companies, according to the figures, there were more than 1,600 complaints about a nurse’s conduct that were investigated by NMC’s “screen legal team”.
NMC warned this week that an accurate figure for the number of complaints against assessment nurses could be higher or lower than “over 1,600”.
This is because the case information it searched for on its database might not mention Atos, Capita or Maximus, even if a nurse had been working for one of the companies, while in other cases, the companies might be mentioned in a case even if the nurse against which an allegation had been made was not one of their employees.
NMC has so far declined to split the figures of more than 1,600 complaints among the three contractors – Atos, Capita and Maximus – or by individual years, but has only provided the overall figure for the number of investigations between 1 April 2011 and 31 Mar 2016.
And it has declined to say whether it was concerned by the figures, because it said it “would not speculate on cases without knowing more about them”.
But an NMC spokesman said in a statement: “We investigate any concerns raised with us regarding an individual’s fitness to practise and will take the appropriate action in every case to ensure the public are protected.”
The spokesman said that anyone with specific concerns about a nurse or midwife should contact NMC to make a referral.
Despite the question-mark over the accuracy of the figures, they are likely to raise concerns about the seriousness with which NMC treats complaints against nurses carrying out benefits assessments.
In spite of the significant number of complaints, only a tiny number of cases have ever emerged in which nurses have been struck off over allegations about their work as disability benefits assessors.
Two of those cases were reported by DNS last August, following a search of NMC’s public database: one in which an Atos nurse was struck off after pretending she had assessed people in their own homes, when she had actually carried out the assessments by telephone; and another in which an Atos nurse was struck off after carrying out assessments while drunk.
DNS has now submitted a fresh freedom of information request to seek more detailed information for 2016 only, which NMC has agreed to provide.
When DWP was asked to comment on the figures and to say whether they were a cause for concern, a spokeswoman dismissed their importance.
She said: “The department cleared 1.9 million PIP claims between 1 December 2013 and 30 September 2016, and in that time only a very tiny proportion of complaints regarding Atos and Capita’s delivery of PIP were accepted for investigation from the Independent Case Examiner [which deals with appeals that follow complaints rejected by the assessment companies, rather than those submitted through the NMC].
“Our providers are committed to providing a high-quality, sensitive and respectful service by conducting fair, accurate and objective assessments.
“We have independent audit in place to ensure advice provided to DWP decision makers is of suitable quality, fully explained and justified.”
Capita declined to comment on the figures, although a Capita spokesman said: “We are unable to comment on the NMC complaints figure presented as it is a combined figure that applies to multiple providers and, as the NMC states, the figure shared has not been examined to ensure its accuracy.
“Furthermore, complaints received by NMC are from a range of sources, and we do not have sight of these.
“We will fully cooperate with the NMC in cases where they bring complaints to our attention.
“Our assessors are expected to work in accordance to the DWP guidelines.”
Atos has refused to comment, as has Maximus