Tag: James Harrison

DWP is trying to co-opt GPs in forcing ill people into work

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Yesterday on Twitter, I posted one of my previous posts – Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died in which I discuss a letter addressed to a GP regarding a seriously ill patient. It said:

We have decided your patient is capable of work from and including January 10, 2016.

“This means you do not have to give your patient more medical certificates for employment and support allowance purposes unless they appeal against this decision.”

The patient, James Harrison, had been declared “fit for work” and the letter stated that he should not get further medical certificates. 

However, 10 months after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contacted his doctor without telling him, he died, aged 55. James clearly wasn’t fit for work. 

The GP had stopped issuing medical certificates when the DWP told him to. It is completely unacceptable that James Harrison was left struggling without support, when he was clearly very ill. It is also unacceptable that James’ GP was given instructions from the state – that caused harm – without James’ knowledge. 

The certificates – so-called fit notes – demonstrate that the government seems to have some difficulty in recognising that sometimes people get ‘sick’ and require support via the provision they have paid into.

Austerity: When the state takes money from the public and hands it out to millionaires

David Cameron, however, had other plans for the UK. He said: “We simply have to get to grips with the sicknote culture that means a short spell of sickness absence can far too easily become a gradual slide to a life of long-term benefit dependency.

“The new welfare bill – described as the biggest shake-up of the system since it was set up 60 years ago – is designed to say end the culture of the fit and healthy being able to refuse work being rewarded for staying at home.”

However, the statement isn’t coherent. He infers that people are recovering from a brief period of illness and then refusing to return to work. As we have learned at great human cost over the last few years, this legislation has destroyed the lives of thousands of people who are ill. It was always intended to take away support from those who need it most. That is evident in the Conservatives’ incoherent attempt at a justification narrative, propped up by the right wing media. 

It never seemed to have crossed Cameron’s mind that 1) people’s medical conditions may worsen, they may have a chronic or degenerative illness. Being chronically ill does not make a person ‘benefit dependent’, it simply makes them ill. 2) The public contributes to the treasury, which is in part a funding mechanism towards social security and other state provisions, via tax and national insurance. This is done on the understanding that the state ensures that citizens can meet their basic survival needs. The Conservatives have clearly stated they have ‘other’ ideas on how our public funds should be spent, which does not include meeting the needs of the public.

The state is responsible for handling public funds. It is unacceptable that such contentious neoliberal ideology is being used by the Conservatives to dismantle state provision for those who need it most, while deliberately targeting the poorest citizens with austerity cuts. Meanwhile, millionaires are rewarded with generous tax cuts from the public purse. At the time when the welfare reform act was passed, millonaires were handed a tax cut of £107,000 each per year. This callous and unjustified approach to social administration is destroying people’s lives and has profoundly damaged our democracy and society, while seriously and systematically violating the human rights of the UK’s most marginalised groups.

It is very worrying that the clearly dangerous ESA65B form is a standardised response to GPs from the DWP following an assessment where someone has been found fit for work.  I discussed some of the raised issues further in another article from last year that I posted on Twitter yesterday – GPs told to consider making fit notes conditional on patients having appointment with work coach 

It’s even more worrying that the part clarifying ‘fit notes’ should continue if a person is appealing a ‘fit for work’ has been removed from the standard letter, and a line added that says: “In the course of any further consultations with […] we hope you will also encourage [the patient]in [their]efforts to return to, or start, work.” 

I always worry when the government uses the words “encourage”, “help” and “support” in the context of policies and political practices that affect disabled people. They are usually techniques of neutralisation – euphemisms for the actions embedded in punitive and harmful policies.

This growing practice of the state intruding in the confidential relationship between a GP and patient undermines trust, it damages the professionalism and clinical expertise of doctors and threatens the safety and wellbeing of patients. It shrinks the safe spaces for citizens to escape the increasingly oppressive practices of the government. It turns GPs into non-neutral agents of the state.

We know from the high rate of success at appeal for Employment and Support Allowance claims that the DWP’s decision making regarding ill and disabled people’s ‘work capability’ is truly atrocious and negligent, and there is absolutely no convincing empirical evidence that “work is a health outcome”. (See: Work as a health outcome, making work pay and other Conservative myths and magical thinking.)

Last year, jobcentre staff were forced to withdraw guidance that urged GPs in Leeds to use deceitful tactics to attempt to get people who are ill off social security support and into work. The shocking guidance asked doctors to send patients for a 45-minute session with a “Patient Coach” – without mentioning that the coach actually worked for the the DWP.

It was even suggested that GPs withhold sick notes unless patients agreed to attend an appointment with the work coach. 

This is a tactic many of us have previously warned of – the government attempting to co-opt doctors to police ill and disabled people, pushing them into work, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate or safe to do so. But it also indicates the direction of travel for healthcare in the UK. The government intend to make that provision conditional also. (See Tories propose nudge, big business AI initiative and ‘personal responsibility’ in place of adequate health care funding.)

The government is forcing people who are ill into either work or into poverty, and both  outcomes are absolutely ethically unacceptable, a violation of rights, authoritarian and very dangerous. Increasingly, poverty is being used as a weapon to coerce people into work. However, many jobs are not paying enough for people to meet their living costs, so it is no guarantee that work will alleviate poverty.

The government seems to think that citizenship rights ought to be entirely conditional on people being economically useful to the government.

If we fail to be so, we are being treated as disposable political commodities. But citizens are not a means to state imposed ends and ideological aims in wealthy so-called first world democracies. And democratic governments don’t generally impose ‘behavioural change’ techniques on citizens, or professionals, for that matter, in order to make them complicit in the abuse and oppression of marginalised groups. The state is increasingly policing and punishing the poorest citizens, leaving them completely isolated and without any reliable support whatsoever.

The ESA65B is misleading GPs and deterring people from appealing wrongful  DWP decisions

On the DWP’s ESA65B GP’s letter template most recently placed on the government site, titled “Help us support your patient to return to or start work” it says: “We assessed [Title] [First name] [Surname] on and decided that [select] is capable of doing some work, but this might not be the same type of work [select] may have done before.

“We know most people are better off in work, so we are encouraging [Title] [First name] [Surname] to find out what type of work [select] may be able to do with [select] health condition or disability through focused support at [select] local Jobcentre Plus.

“In the course of any further consultations with [Title] [First name] [Surname] we hope you will also encourage [select] in [select] efforts to return to, or start, work

“Please do not give [Title] [First name] [Surname] any more fit notes relating to [select] disability/health condition for ESA purposes.

The problem is that people appealing wrongful DWP work capability decisions need to provide sickness certification in order to proceed.

Minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, responded to one of several Written Questions from Emma Dent Coad, saying: “The ESA65B letter is issued to GPs in every case where an ESA claimant has been found ‘fit for work’. This process was built into the IT system as part of the introduction of ESA in October 2008. 

“Following a Ministerial requirement by the Cabinet Secretary, which was endorsed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the content of the ESA65B letter has been improved in order to explain to GPs the type of support customers can expect to receive from their local Jobcentre, and to ask GPs to encourage customers in their efforts to return to work.” [My emphasis]. 

GPs are trained and tasked to objectively address health and wellbeing, they should not be co-opted as government ideologues.

The decision to change the letter template was made without any scrutiny from or consultation with parliament and the public. It’s worth reading the series of questions by Emma Dent Coad. Prompting accountable and transparent answers from Sarah Newton appears similar to an exercise in pulling teeth. The responses given display the arrogance, contempt and delusions of an authoritarian government.

When people become ill, they make an appointment with my GP, and not the secretary of state for work and pensions, and for very good reasons. People need support and treatment, not someone spouting ideologically orchestrated dangerous claptrap about how work is ‘good’ for them. It seems the notion of convalescence and recovery are incompatible with the government’s aim of “getting Britain working”.

Catastrophically inaccurate assessments within the DWP are the norm. The government are intentionally reducing access to essential support and services for ill and disabled people, and this ideological attack is causing material hardship, suffering, distress and sometimes, it is killing people. 

The contentious “fit for work” assessment is forcing severely ill people to look for work and sanctioning them if they’re exhausted, in too much pain to get out of bed, while delays in social security are forcing cancer patients to food banks, and the bedroom tax results in bed-bound ill and disabled people facing horrifying threats of eviction. 

These are the direct consequence of intentionally punitive government policies, which aim at enforcing ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘behavioural change’ on those citizens with the fewest choices.

Dan Carden’s letter to Amber Rudd

I was pleased to see Liverpool Walton MP Dan Carden’s letter to Amber Rudd (below) which addresses some of the concerns many of us have raised. He also notes that without a GP’s ‘fit note’, (the Conservative’s Orwellian rebrand of the sick note) it isn’t possible for people challenging Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decisions to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in the interim period, until their appeal is heard at Tribunal. 

Indeed, people who have lodged an appeal against a wrongful decision have been blocked from claiming ESA while awaiting the hearing, due to the misleading letter routinely sent from the DWP to doctors. This prevents untold numbers of low-income claimants from accessing financial support while they wait for months on end to go to tribunal. 

Entitlement to ESA pending appeal is enshrined in the ESA Regulations to cover the whole of the period leading up the hearing. It is also possible to have the payment backdated to cover the Mandatory Review waiting period too – it can take over six weeks for the DWP to review their original decision, over which time people are left without welfare support.

However, ESA pending appeal is not paid automatically – people usually have to ask for it, and must provide fit notes from their GP, presenting these along with their appeal acknowledgment letter from the Tribunal Courts to their local Job Centre. The Job Centre should report back to the DWP who will arrange for ESA pending appeal to be paid.

It simply isn’t appropriate for the DWP to interfere in a GP’s professional and qualified judgement, especially given the high rate of successful ESA appeals, indicating just how poor the decisions issued by the DWP actually are concerning people’s capacity to work. 

Dan’s letter:

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Related

Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died.

Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Tories propose nudge, big business AI initiative and ‘personal responsibility’ in place of adequate health care funding

 


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GPs told to consider making fit notes conditional on patients having appointment with work coach

Thanks to  for the copy of a patient work coach letter to GPs.

One of the most worrying comments on the above letter is that despite claiming the work coach service is voluntary, and that if a patient refuses to engage “it won’t affect any benefit they get”, the letter then goes on to suggest that doctors may consider the issuing of subsequent fit notes conditional (“with the proviso that”) on their patient attending a meeting with the work coach. That one sentence simply makes a mockery of the claim that patient engagement with work coaches is voluntary. 

Illnesses don’t respond to provisos or caveats. People don’t suddenly recover when the Department for Work and Pensions decides that they are fit for work. When job centre staff tell GPs to stop issuing sick notes to patients it can have catastrophic consequences, from which the government never seem to learn. In fact they don’t even acknowledge the terrible costs that their deeply flawed policies are inflicting on citizens. 

Julia Savage is a manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre in Liverpool. In 2016, she wrote a letter (an ESA65B notification form) addressed to a GP regarding a seriously ill patient. It said:

We have decided your patient is capable of work from and including January 10, 2016.

“This means you do not have to give your patient more medical certificates for employment and support allowance purposes unless they appeal against this decision.

“You may need to again if their condition worsens significantly, or they have a new medical condition.” 

The GP subsequently repeatedly refused to provide him with new fit notes, even as his health deteriorated, and he died months later.

James Harrison – the patient – had been declared “fit for work” and the letter stated that he should not get further medical certificates. The Department for Work and Pensions contacted his doctor without telling him, and ordered him to cease providing sick certification, James died, aged 55.

He was very clearly not fit for work.

It is very worrying that the ESA65B form is a standardised response to GPs from the Department for Work and Pensions following an assessment where someone has been found fit for work.  

The government as boardroom doctors: political jobsworths

The Department for Work and Pensions issued a new guidance to GPs in 2013, regarding when they should issue a Fit Note. This was updated in December 2016. 

In the dogma document, doctors are warned of the dangers of “worklessness” and told they must consider “the vital role that work can play in your patient’s health”. According to the department, “the evidence is clear that patients benefit from being in some kind of regular work”

As a matter of fact, it isn’t clear at all.

The idea that people remain ill deliberately to avoid returning to work  – what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron termed “the sickness benefit culture” – is not only absurd, it’s very offensive. This is a government that not only disregards the professional judgements of doctors, it also disregards the judgements of sick and disabled people. However, we have learned over the last decade that political “management” of people’s medical conditions does not make people healthier or suddenly able to work.

Government policies, designed to ‘change behaviours’ of sick and disabled people have resulted in harmdistress and sometimes, in premature deaths.

Call me contrary, but whenever I am ill with my medical and not political illness, I generally trust my qualified GP or consultant to support me. I would never think of making an appointment to see the irrational likes of Esther McVey or Iain Duncan Smith for advice on lupus, or to address my health needs and treatment. 

The political de-professionalisation of medicine, medical science and specialisms (consider, for example, the ghastly implications of permitting job coaches to update patient medical files), the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service. 

De-medicalising illness is also a part of that increasingly behaviourist-neoliberal process:  “Behavioural approaches try to extinguish observed illness behaviour by withdrawal of negative reinforcements such as medication, sympathetic attention, rest, and release from duties, and to encourage healthy behaviour by positive reinforcement: ‘operant-conditioning’ using strong feedback on progress.” Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton in Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of common health problems. The Corporate Medical Group, Department for Work and Pensions, UK. 

Waddell and Burton are cited frequently by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as providing ‘scientific evidence’ that their policies are “verified” and “evidence based.” Yet the DWP have selectively funded their research, which unfortunately frames and constrains the theoretical starting point, research processes and the outcomes with a heavy ideological bias. 

This behaviourist framing simply shifts the focus from the medical conditions that cause illness and disability to the ‘incentives’, behaviours and perceptions of patients and ultimately, to neoliberal notions of personal responsibility and self-sufficient citizenship in the dehumanising context of a night watchman, non-welfare state, absent of any notion of human rights. 

Medication, rest, release from duties, sympathetic understanding – the remedies to illness – are being appallingly redefined as ‘perverse incentives’ for ill health, yet the symptoms necessarily precede the prescription of medication, the Orwellian renamed (and political rather than medical) “fit note” and exemption from work duties. Notions of ‘rehabilitation’ and medicine are being redefined as behaviour modification: here it is proposed that operant conditioning in the form of negative reinforcement –  punishment – will cure’ ill health. 

It’s a completely slapstick rationale, hammered into shape by a blunt instrument – political ideology. People cannot simply be ‘incentivised’ (coercion is a more appropriate term) into not being ill. Punishing people for being poor by removing their support does not ‘help’ them to stop being poor, either, despite the  doublespeak and mental gymnastic pseudoscientific rubbish the government spouts.

Turning health care into a government work programme 

The government dogmatically assert “The idea behind the fit note is that individuals do not always need to be fully recovered to go back to work, and in fact it can often help recovery to return to work.” 

It was 2015 when I wrote a breaking article about the government’s Work and Health programme, raising concerns that the Nudge Unit team were working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to trial social experiments aimed at finding ways of: “preventing people from falling out of the jobs market and going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).” 

“These include GPs prescribing a work coach, and a health and work passport to collate employment and health information. These emerged from research with people on ESA, and are now being tested with local teams of Jobcentres, GPs and employers.”

Of course the government hadn’t announced these ‘interventions’ in the lives of ill and disabled people. I found out about it quite by chance because I happened to read Matthew Hancock’s  conference speech: The Future of Public Services.

I researched a little further and found an article in Pulse – a publication for for medical professionals – which confirmed Hancock’s comment: GP practices to provide advice on job seeking in new pilot schemeI posted my own article on the Pulse site in October 2015, raising some of my concerns.

Many of us have warned that the programme jeopardises doctor-patient confidentiality, risks alienating patients from their doctors and perverts the primary role and ethical mission of the healthcare system, which is to help people to recover from illnesses. Placing job coaches in GP surgeries makes them much less inaccessible, because it turns tappointments potentially into areas of pressure and coercion. That is the very last thing someone needs when they become ill.

One worry was that the government may use the ‘intervention’ as a further opportunity for sanctioning ill and disabled people for ‘non-compliance’. People who are ill often can’t undertake work related tasks precisely because they are ill. Until recent years, this was accepted as common sense, and any expectation of sick people having to conform with such rigid welfare conditionality was quite properly regarded as both unfair and unrealistic.

I expressed concern that the introduction of  job coaches in health care settings, peddling the myth that ‘work is a health outcome’ would potentially conflict with the ethics and role of a doctor. I also stated my concern about the potential that this (then) pilot had for damaging the trust between doctors and their patients. 

In another article in 2016, titled Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records, I outlined how GPs had raised their own concerns about sharing patient data with the Department for Work and Pensions – and quite properly so. 

Pulse reported that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to extract information from GP records, including the number of Med3s or so-called ‘fit notes’  issued by each practice and the number of patients recorded as ‘unfit’ or ‘maybe fit’ for work, in an intrusive move described by GP leaders as amounting to “state snooping.”

Part of the reason for this renewed government attack on ill and disabled people is that the Government’s flagship fit note scheme, which replaced sick notes five years ago in the hope it would see GPs sending thousands more employees back to work to reduce sickness-related absence, despite GPs having expressed doubts since before its launch, has predicably failed.

The key reason for the failure is that employers did not take responsibility for working with employees and GPs seriously, and more than half (59%) of employers said they felt unable to support employees by making all of the legally required workplace adjustments for those who had fit notes signed as “may be fit for work.” Rather than address this issue with employers, the government has decided instead to simply coerce patients back into work without essential support.

Another reason for the failure of this scheme is that most people who need time off from work are ill and genuinely cannot return to work until they have recovered. Regardless of the government’s concern for the business and state costs of sick leave, people cannot be simply ushered out of illness and into work by the state to “contribute to the economy.”

When a GP says a person is ‘unfit for work’, they generally ARE unfit for work, regardless of whether the ‘business friendly’ government likes that or not. And regardless of the politically prescribed Orwellian renaming of sick notes, which show ‘paternalist’ linguistic behaviourism in action.

In 2017, the General Medical Council (GMC) – independent regulator for doctors in the UK – wrote a response to the government’s green paper: Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper consultation. The authors of the document begin by saying ” Our purpose is to protect, promote and maintain the health and safety of the public by ensuring proper standards in the practice of medicine.”

The response continues: “Where doctors are expected to play a role in initiatives such as those set out in the Green paper, our concern is to ensure that any responsibilities that might be placed on doctors would be consistent with their professional obligations and would not risk damaging patients’ trust in their doctors. While we believe that many of the Green paper proposals are promising, we are concerned that key elements appear to present a conflict with the ethical responsibilities we place on doctors. The comments below are seeking clarification in these areas.”

And: “We understand from this Green paper, and from the Department of Work and Pensions’ published FOI response, dated 22 December 2016, that the work coaches who will conduct the mandatory health and work conversation with claimants will not be health professionals. There is a risk that claimants will not get the right support in setting health and work-related goals during this mandatory conversation if the work coach does not have clinical expertise.

“It would be helpful to know whether work coaches will be expected to have access to the claimant’s healthcare team and/or health records to inform these conversations. If so, we would appreciate reassurance that there will be a process for obtaining consent from the claimant, and providing assurance to the relevant health professionals that the individual has provided consent. Given that work coaches do not require medical expertise, we have some concerns about these conversations leading claimants to agree to health-related actions in a Health and Work ‘claimant commitment’. It seems possible that agreed actions might not be clinically appropriate for that individual or not the best course of action given their health condition. 

If a claimant commitment were reviewed by the claimant’s doctor (or other healthcare professional), and the doctor concluded that there was a health risk; then would the claimant be free to withdraw from the commitment without facing a benefits penalty? If not, then this would put the doctor and patient in a very difficult position, if it appeared that the patient had been poorly advised by the work coach and was not making an informed, voluntary decision in requesting a particular treatment or care regime from their doctor. 

We note the intention is for any agreement made in the Health and Work Conversation to be seen as voluntary. However, it seems to us that since the Conversation itself is mandatory and a Claimant commitment may influence subsequent handling of an individual’s Work Capability assessment, then in practice claimants may see these agreements as mandatory.

“As a result they may feel pressured to accept advice and make commitments which may not be appropriate in their case. This would place theirdoctors in a difficult ethical position, and we are concerned to ensure that this is not the case.

The authors add: “… we make it clear in our guidance that doctors must consider the validity of a patient’s consent to treatment if it is linked with access to benefits. Doctors should be aware that patients may be put under pressure by employers, insurers, or others to accept a particular investigation or treatment (paragraph 41, Consent: patients and doctors making decisions together).

“Difficulty could arise if a doctor does not believe that a patient is freely consenting to treatment and is instead only giving consent due to financial pressure. Doctors must be satisfied that they have valid consent before providing  treatment, which means they could be left with a difficult decision as to whether to refuse treatment in the knowledge that this could affect the patients benefit entitlements.” 

The GMC also raise concerns about how sensitive health data is collected and shared for purposes other for patients’ direct care, without patients being informed or giving consent. The government have simply proposed to access health care data to support “any assessment for financial support” and told GPs to assume consent has been given.

Promoting the myth that work is a ‘clinical outcome’ 

A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance – said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits. 

Of course it may be the case that people in better health work because they can, and have less need for healthcare services simply because they are relatively well, rather than because they work. 

From the document“The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.” 

A political decision was made that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for their health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by “helping” them into work.

Another government document from 2014 – Psychological Wellbeing and Work – says: We know that being in work is good for wellbeing and that mental health problems are an increasing issue for the nation and so the Minister for Welfare Reform and the Minister for Care and Support jointly sought to expand the evidence base on common mental health problems.  

“A number of Government programmes assess and support those with mental health difficulties to work, but it is internationally recognised that the evidence base for successful interventions is limited. 

“The Contestable Policy Fund gives ministers alternative avenues to explore new thinking and strategies that offer cross-Government benefits. This report was commissioned through this route.” 

And: “Within the time and resources available for this study the research team did not undertake extensive assessment of the quality of the evidence base (eg assessing the research design and methodology of previous studies)”

The government have gone on to declare with authoritarian flourish that they now want to reinforce their proposal that “work is a health outcome.” Last year, a report by the Mental Health Task Force and chaired by Mind’s Paul Farmer, recommended that employment should be recognised as a ‘health outcome’.  I’m just wondering how people with, say, personality disorders, or psychosis are suddenly going to overcome the nature of their condition and all of a sudden successfully hold down a job for a minimum of six months.

Mind those large logical gaps… 

This has raised immediate concerns regarding the extent to which people will be pushed into work they are not able or ready to do, or into bad quality, low paid and inappropriate work that is harmful to them, under the misguided notion that any work will be good for them in the long run.

It has become very evident over recent years that the labour market is not delivering an adequate income for many citizens and despite “record levels of employment”, the problem seems to be getting bigger. The government’s answer to the problem has been to extend punishment those on low pay, rather than tackle employers who pay exploitative, low wages.

The idea of the state persuading doctors and other professionals to “sing from the same [political] hymn sheet”, by promoting work outcomes in social and health care settings is more than a little Orwellian. Co-opting professionals to police the welfare system is very dangerous. 

In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” as the government are urging, will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. Citizens’ safe spaces for genuine and objective support is shrinking as the state encroaches with strategies to micromanage those using public services. This encroachment will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

State micromanagement of tenants

The GMC say in their response to the government’s proposals: “We are unclear about the evidence that might support a move to the position that ‘being in employment’ should be regarded as a ‘clinical outcome’ that healthcare professionals are expected to work towards with people of employment age seeking health-related advice and treatment. This is a highly contentious issue and indeed Dame Carol Black’s report certainly makes clear that there is limited support for this within the profession.” 

I’m not unclear. There is no evidence. In an era of small state neoliberalism and ideologically driven austerity, it is an act of sheer political expediency to claim that ‘worklessness’ is the reason for the poor health outcomes that are in fact correlated with increasing inequality, poverty and lower standards of living – higher mortality;  poorer general health, long-standing illness, limiting longstanding illness; poorer mental health, psychological distress, psychological/psychiatric morbidity; higher medical consultation, medication consumption and hospital admission rates.

Both social security and the National Health Service have been intentionally underfunded and run down by the Conservatives, who have planned and partially implemented a piecemeal privatisation process by stealth, to avoid a public backlash.

Unemployment (not ‘worklessness’ –  that’s part of the privileged discourse of neoliberalism, which serves to marginalise the structural aspects of persistent unemployment and poverty, by transforming these into individual pathologies of benefit ‘dependency ‘and ‘worklessness’) is undoubtedly associated with poverty, because welfare provision no longer meets the most basic living costs.

However to make an inferential leap and claim that work is therefore ‘good’ for health’ is incoherent, irrational and part of an elaborate political gaslighting campaign of an authoritarian government, who simply don’t want to address growing poverty and inequality caused by their own neoliberal policies.

The direction that government policy continues to be pushed in represents a serious threat to the health, welfare, wellbeing, basic human rights, democratic inclusionand lives of patients and the political independence of health professionals.


Related

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work 

Illustration by Jack Hudson

 


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Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died.

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Abbie and her late father, James Harrison.

Julia Savage is a manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre in Liverpool. She wrote a letter addressed to a GP regarding a seriously ill patient. It said:

“We have decided your patient is capable of work from and including January 10, 2016.

“This means you do not have to give your patient more medical certificates for employment and support allowance purposes unless they appeal against this decision.

“You may need to again if their condition worsens significantly, or they have a new medical condition.” 

The patient, James Harrison, had been declared “fit for work” and the letter stated that he should not get further medical certificates. 

However, 10 months after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contacted his doctor without telling him, James died, aged 55, the Daily Record has reported.

He was clearly not fit for work.

His grieving daughter, Abbie, said: “It’s a disgrace that managers at the Jobcentre, who know nothing about medicine, should interfere in any way in the relationship between a doctor and a patient.

“They have no place at all telling a doctor what they should or shouldn’t give a patient. It has nothing to do with them.

“When the Jobcentre starts to get involved in telling doctors about the health of their patients, that’s a really slippery slope.”

Abbie said James had worked since leaving school at a community centre near his home. But his already poor health went downhill after the centre was shut down because of austerity cuts.

James had a serious lung condition and a hernia before the centre closed, and also developed depression and anxiety afterwards.

Abbie said: “He’d worked all his life. He wasn’t the kind of guy who knew anything about benefits.

“But as his health deteriorated, there wasn’t any chance he could do a job. He applied for employment and support allowance.”

James received Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but only at the low rate of £70 a week, the same amount as jobseekers’ allowance. He was then sent to attend one of the DWP’s controversial Work Capability Assessments – and declared fit for work.

Despite that decision, Abbie said James remained in constant need of medical help and had to visit his doctor regularly.

However, the GP concerned repeatedly refused to give him a sick note, and James began to suspect the Jobcentre were to blame for this.

Abbie said: “He really needed a note. He was too ill to go to the constant appointments at the Jobcentre and he didn’t want to be sanctioned.

“He became convinced the DWP had been talking to his doctor behind his back.”

Although Abbie felt her father was confused, and didn’t think his explanation was right at the time, she later asked to see her father’s medical records. She found the letter in his file from Julia Savage, the manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre, in James’s home city of Liverpool.

The letter was addressed to James’s GP.

Context: Government claims that work is a “health outcome”

James Harrison was very worried that his ill health interfered with his obligation to comply with the inflexible and constant conditions attached to his eligibility for welfare support, and that this would lead to sanctions – the withdrawal of his lifeline support, which was calculated to meet basic survival needs only.

The GP should have provided evidence that this was the case. The doctor was advised not to provide further fit notes by the DWP, however, unless James appealed. Yet the circumstances warranted that the GP provide a fit note. 

fit-note-guidance

Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions issued an ideologically directed new guidance to GPs regarding when they should issue a Fit Note. This was updated in December 2016.

In the document, doctors are warned of the dangers of “worklessness” and told they must consider “the vital role that work can play in your patient’s health”.  According to the department, “the evidence is clear that patients benefit from being in some kind of regular work”.

The biopsychosocial model, with a current political emphasis on the psychological element, has become a disingenuous euphemism for psychosomatic illness, which has been exploited by successive governments (and rogue insurance companies) to limit or deny access to social security, medical and social care.

Nobody would deny that illness has biological, psychological and social dimensions, however, the model has been adapted to fit a neoliberal “small state” ideology – one that rests almost entirely on Conservative individualist notions of citizen responsibility, as opposed to a rights-based approach and provision of publicly funded state support.

This approach to disability and ill health has been used by the government to purposefully question the extent to which people claiming social security bear personal responsibility for their own health status, rehabilitation and prompt return to work. It also leads to the alleged concern that a welfare system which was originally designed to provide a livable income to those with disabling health problems, may provide “perverse incentives” for perverse behaviours, entrenching “worklessness” and a “culture of dependency”. It’s worth pointing out at this point that there has never been any empirical evidence to support the Conservative notion of welfare “dependency”. 

Instead of being viewed as a way of diversifying risk and supporting those who have suffered misfortune and ill health, social and private insurance systems are to be understood as perverse incentives that pay people, absurdly, to remain ill and keep them from being economically productive.

The idea that people remain ill deliberately to avoid returning to work  – what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron have termed “the sickness benefit culture” – is not only absurd, it’s very offensive. This is a government that not only disregards the professional judgements of doctors, it also disregards the judgements of sick and disabled people. However, we have learned over the last decade that political “management” of people’s medical conditions does not make people healthier or suddenly able to work. Government policies, designed to “change behaviours” of sick and disabled people have resulted in harm, distress and sometimes, in premature deaths

The government have made it clear that there are plans to merge health and employment services. In a move that is both unethical and likely to present significant risk of harm to many patients, health professionals are being tasked to deliver benefit cuts for the DWP. This involves measures to support the imposition of work cures, including setting employment as a clinical outcome and allowing medically unqualified job coaches to directly update a patient’s medical record.

The Conservatives (and the Reform think tank) have also proposed mandatory treatment for people with long term conditions (which was first flagged up in the Conservative Party Manifesto) and this is currently under review, including whether benefit entitlements should be linked to “accepting appropriate treatments or support/taking reasonable steps towards “rehabilitation”.  The work, health and disability green paper and consultation suggests that people with the most severe illnesses in the support group may be subjected to welfare conditionality and sanctions.

Many campaigners have raised concerns about the DWP interfering with people’s medical care and accessing their medical files. I wrote an article last year about how the government plans to merge health and employment services and are now attempting to redefine work as a clinical outcome. I raised concerns about the fact that unemployment has been stigmatised and politically redefined as a psychological disorder, and that the government claims, somewhat incoherently, that the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability, and sickness absence from work, is work.

In a critical analysis of the recent work, health and disability green paper, I said: 

“And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

It seems likely, then, that a new “independent” assessment and some multinational private company will most likely very soon have a lucrative role to ensure the government get the “right” results.”

The medical specialists are to be replaced by another profiteering corporate giant who will enforce a political agenda in return for big bucks from the public purse. Health care specialists are seeing their roles being incrementally and systematically  de-professionalised. That means more atrocious and highly irrational attempts from an increasingly authoritarian government at imposing an ideological “cure” – entailing the withdrawal of any support and imposing punitive “behavioural incentives” – on people with medical conditions and disabilities. Doctors, who are clever enough to recognise, diagnose and treat illness, are suddenly deemed by this government to be insufficiently clever to judge if patients are fit for work.

The political de-professionalisation of medicine, medical science and specialisms (consider, for example, the implications of permitting job coaches to update patient medical files), the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service. 

“De-medicalising” illness is also a part of that process:

“Behavioural approaches try to extinguish observed illness behaviour by withdrawal of negative reinforcements such as medication, sympathetic attention, rest, and release from duties, and to encourage healthy behaviour by positive reinforcement: ‘operant-conditioning’ using strong feedback on progress.” Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton in Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of common health problems. The Corporate Medical Group, Department for Work and Pensions, UK. 

Waddell and Burton are cited frequently by the DWP as providing “evidence” that their policies are “evidence based.” Yet the DWP have selectively funded their research, which unfortunately frames and constrains the theoretical starting point, research processes and the outcomes with a heavy ideological bias. 

This framing simply shifts the focus from the medical conditions that cause illness and disability to the “incentives”, behaviours and perceptions of patients and ultimately, to neoliberal notions of personal responsibility and self-sufficient citizenship in a context of a night watchman, non-welfare state. 

Medication, rest, release from duties, sympathetic understanding – the remedies to illness – are being appallingly redefined as “perverse incentives” for ill health, yet the symptoms necessarily precede the prescription of medication, the Orwellian renamed (and political rather than medical) “fit note” and exemption from work duties. Notions of “rehabilitation” and medicine are being redefined as behaviour modification: here it is proposed that operant conditioning in the form of negative reinforcement – which the authors seem to have confused with punishment – will “cure” ill health. 

People cannot simply be “incentivised” into not being ill. 

The political use of the biopsychosocial model to cut costs at the expense of people who are ill will undoubtedly have further extremely serious implications. Such an approach, which draws on behaviourism and punishment (such as the threat and implementation of sanctions) is extremely unethical and makes the issue of consent to medical treatment very problematic if it is linked to the loss of lifeline support or the fear of loss of benefits.

This is clearly the direction that government policy is moving in and this represents a serious threat to the health, welfare, wellbeing and human rights of patients and the political independence of health professionals.

 

 


 

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