Tag Archives: fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia sufferers who claim ESA are not Lady Gaga – which is why the DWP can abuse them

Lady Gaga details her condition in the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two [Image: Netflix].

Fibromyalgia is, of course, one of the conditions affecting This Writer’s own partner (known here as Mrs Mike).

Mrs Mike was diagnosed with the condition at around the same age as Lady Gaga and still has it now, a number of years (no, I won’t tell you how many) later.

I can confirm that the symptoms in the article below are correct, and that nobody knows what causes it. The suggestion that it is a disorder in the brain is unattractive to me; the brain certainly receives amplified pain messages but whether they are magnified in the brain itself or by the nerves sending the messages is unclear.

It seems to me that pain receptors around the source of the discomfort are also triggered, despite having no pain to register, making it more uncomfortable for the sufferer. That would suggest a physiological, rather than a psychological problem – or so it seems to me.

I have omitted the paragraph on treatment because it doesn’t ring true. None of the methods mentioned – exercise, physiotherapy, adjustments in the workplace, counselling and stress management – have worked for Mrs Mike. They merely got her hopes up, only to be dashed when they failed to deliver any improvement.

There is no mention of the toll the illness takes on a sufferer’s mental health.

Most importantly, while it is welcome that Lady Gaga is willing to discuss her illness and raise awareness of it, we should all remember that she is a wealthy pop star. Most sufferers of fibromyalgia are not in that position.

Here in the UK, many are at the mercy of the Department for Work and Pensions and its fiendish Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance.

Mrs Mike was put in the Work-Related Activity Group of this benefit’s recipients at first, which means the government expected her to get better within a year of first receiving the benefit. That was utterly unrealistic and she was told so by the first advisor who discussed her condition with her.

When she appealed, the DWP ignored her and a note was put on her file not to contact her. We only discovered this when her benefit was cut off at the end of her year in the WRAG.

I had to contact the DWP and cause all kinds of trouble before Mrs Mike was put on income-related ESA, and then into the support group where she belonged in the first place.

Other people with the condition don’t have carers like me. They struggle to make their condition understood.

And we all know what happens to people who cannot get the DWP to understand.

They end up getting slung off the benefit and into debt, despair and destitution.

Many thousands have died.

Those are the facts of fibromyalgia in 21st century Britain.

On Monday it was announced that Lady Gaga has cancelled her European tour, due to begin next week, because of “severe physical pain that has impacted her ability to perform”. She has fibromyalgia, and has made a Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, to raise awareness about this long-term condition. A statement says: “She plans to spend the next seven weeks proactively working with her doctors to heal from this and past traumas that still affect her daily life and result in severe physical pain in her body. She wants to give her fans the best version of the show she built for them when the tour resumes.”

We’ve all heard of Lady Gaga, but fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) may be more of a mystery. It is a condition that is hard to diagnose, explain or treat. And many people with the condition say they struggle to get medical professionals to take their symptoms seriously. FMS is a long-term condition that causes widespread pain. Its debilitating symptoms include extreme tiredness, muscle aches, difficulty sleeping and concentrating; headaches and bloating are also common. In Lady Gaga’s case, it is easy to see how she may have initially put these problems down to touring and performing. But the fatigue and pains persist even when you rest, and can be far more draining than normal tiredness.

People with FMS often notice that a fairly innocuous injury, such as stubbing a toe, hurts more intensely and for longer than it should. And even a light touch that shouldn’t hurt at all can be experienced as an unpleasantly painful sensation. The fatigue means you need to sleep a lot but wake up feeling groggy, stiff and achy. Even mental processes feel sluggish, so it becomes a huge effort to concentrate or learn anything new, and your speech may sound slow and a bit muddled. Patients call this “fibro-fog”.

FMS is typically diagnosed in people just like Lady Gaga: female and aged 30-50 (she is 31). It may affect as many as one in 20 people, but there is no definitive test, so it is hard to estimate numbers.

No one knows what causes FMS.

There is no specific cure… Many people do get better over time. However, you cannot predict how long recovery may take, or whether symptoms will recur, so it is hard to know when she might feel ready to commit to touring again.

Source: Fibromyalgia: the chronic pain that thwarted Lady Gaga’s tour | Life and style | The Guardian


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This Christmas, remember the hidden casualties of the Coalition years

Suffering: If fibromyalgia displayed visible signs, this is how a sufferer would look. Imagine how such a person would feel - physically and emotionally - if they were left alone this Christmas. Too much trouble for family; no fair-weather friends left; and a government that won't even investigate if they were found dead after the holidays.

Agony: If fibromyalgia displayed visible signs, this is how a sufferer would look. Imagine how such a person would feel – physically and emotionally – if they were left alone this Christmas. Too much trouble for family; no fair-weather friends left; and a government that won’t even investigate if they were found dead after the holidays.

Today I had a long chat with a Russia Today reporter, thanks to a recommendation from John McArdle of Black Triangle. It seems a foreign-owned news corporation is more interested in the plight of the UK’s most vulnerable than our home-grown media or – worse – our government.

She was asking about Vox Political‘s Freedom of Information requests, seeking information from the Department for Work and Pensions on the number of people who have died while going through the now-tortuous process of claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which includes the now-infamous work capability assessment (WCA).

As part of the dialogue she told me the government’s current line is that publicising the figures would not be instructive as they do not provide information on the causes of death and many of the deceased may have died because of their medical conditions, rather than due to government harassment or stress brought on by the assessment regime. This is, of course, nonsense.

The government cannot say that people in the Work-Related Activity Group have died because of their medical conditions without admitting that they should never have been put in that group in the first place. The WRAG is for people who are getting better, and who are expected to be healthy enough to seek employment within a year. If they die instead, then the work capability assessor (working for Atos, Maximus or whoever else) clearly missed an important point, or they, possibly together with the DWP decision-maker, disregarded it because regulations handed down from Conservative Party ministers told them to do so.

It is not quite as easy to accuse the government over people in the Support Group, because these have been judged to be in need of the maximum amount of help allowed by the law, due to the severity of their medical conditions. They are more likely to pass away. However, if fatality statistics had been published regularly and properly, it would have been possible to see whether the number of Support Group fatalities was increasing disproportionately; if it was, it follows that ministers should order an investigation into the causes of death. It does not follow that they only died because they had a medical condition. Was it worsened by the stress caused by the DWP’s regime of irregular re-assessments? What about the financial insecurity caused by benefit uprating caps? What about the personal insecurity caused by cuts in care services? With the figures hushed up, it is easy to ignore any such trends. Nobody knows about it, so why make a fuss? When politicians are in government, they have a vested interest in publicising only the information that makes them look good.

How does the government account for deaths in the assessment stage of ESA? These must be mushrooming due to well-publicised delays in processing claimants. Again, some may be due to claimants’ physical conditions but delays in assessment mean they have been deprived of the help they needed.

Then there are the suicides.

Some claimants take their own lives while on the benefit. This could be due to many reasons including the hopelessness of a situation where they foresee themselves being pushed off-benefit (this goes for people in both the WRAG and the Support Group because they are all under the threat of continual reassessment), or suffering more and more cuts to the amount received (in comparison with inflation) that their quality of life will suffer, or they’ll be kicked out of their homes, or they won’t be able to afford the necessities of their lives. The government does not record the number of people who do this and pays no attention to the verdicts of coroners performing inquests on them.

Then there are those who die after being refused the benefit. There is no information on these people at all because the government does not consider them to be its responsibility any more. They could die because of their medical condition; they could commit suicide – it won’t appear in government figures.

But, the possibility of suicide indicates a mental imbalance which should be picked up by the ‘medical experts’ conducting work capability assessments – right? In fact Dr Litchfield, the independent assessor, pointed this out in his recent evaluation of the WCAs’ performance – commenting on how numbers of people in the Support Group had increased due to fears for the safety of the claimants or those near them – and in fact this indicates a grudging nod towards progress. Somewhere, someone noticed that something was going wrong – but while the figures are kept hidden, we know that this is not nearly enough.

And now we are nearly at Christmas. Suicide season.

More people take their own lives under Conservative governments than Labour. And more people do so at Christmas than at any other time of year.

The festive season is great when you are in fine health, surrounded by a family and friends who love you, and are wealthy enough to enjoy the season to the full (we shan’t go into whether your family and friends are only around because you are wealthy enough because there’s no reason to assume any such selfishness and it is, after all, the season of goodwill).

It’s a different proposition when you don’t have your health, when benefit dependency means you can hardly keep yourself, let alone think about presents for other people, and when the lack of both of these have driven away what friends and family you might have – for whatever reasons.

Back in the summer a Twitter acquaintance with fibromyalgia remarked on how lucky Mrs Mike was to have a partner who had stuck with her, because the pressures of the condition lead to partners who are also carers walking out, leaving the sick or disabled (or both) person on their own. Put yourself in that position and ask how you would feel.

Taking all this into consideration, why do you think the death statistics for 2011 – the only year for which we have any figures at all, courtesy of an ‘ad hoc’ DWP release – run from January to November, rather than for the whole year?

Interesting, that.

There’s nothing to be done about the government’s attitude at the moment. Because of it, people are going to die this month and in January.

But there is a way to minimise the situation.

If you know someone who has a long-term sickness or disability and who is going to be on their own this Christmas, why not see what you can do to make it brighter?

It could be the difference between life and death.

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Leaked document shows Tories think incapacity claimants aren’t ill

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The only conclusion to be drawn from the “leaked internal documents” being quoted by the BBC today is that – if they think it is reasonable to cut the work-related activity group element of Employment and Support Allowance, the UK’s main incapacity benefit, down almost to parity with Jobseekers’ Allowance – Tories don’t think these people are really ill.

It seems likely the plans have been drawn up by people who have never needed to cope with fibromyalgia or myalgic encephalomyelitis, who have never suffered a workplace injury or who don’t understand the debilitating nature of the depression that often follows interviews with government employees who are determined to strip claimants of their benefits, no matter how disabled they are.

According to the BBC report, the Department for Work and Pensions has claimed the proposals in the documents are “not government policy“.

The papers show that the proposal to cut ESA(WRAG) by £30, making it almost the same as JSA at around £72-3 per week, is not prompted by any interest in reform, but is simply an attempt to save money.

It seems the government has been forced to hire many extra staff members to clear a backlog of ESA claims which has made it attractive for people who have previously been found ineligible for ESA to reapply, and for JSA claimants to try to move across. The proposed benefit cut seems to be aimed at discouraging such activities.

It is far more likely to encourage protest – possibly with violence, from the very last people who may be expected to respond in such a manner. Yr Obdt Srvt was discussing this matter with a friend who is on ESA, and he expressed a wish to visit Downing Street and make a flamboyant gesture – something as powerful as the event that set the Arab Spring alight (although not as final – the aim is to keep people in the best health possible, after all).

The proposal has attracted criticism from Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons Work and Pensions committee. She said: “That’s not reform, that is just saving money. I hope that is not something the government is going to come forward with.”

And fellow Work and Pensions committee member Sheila Gilmore said: “When Labour created the Work-related Activity Group in 2008, the rationale was to ensure that sick and disabled people who couldn’t work in the short term but might be able to in the future weren’t simply written off.

“However we were clear that up until their next reassessment – which would occur at least every two years – these people were still unable to work. This is something Tory Ministers now seem keen to ignore.

“By cutting payments to those in the Work-related Activity Group by nearly £30 per week, Ian Duncan Smith is effectively saying that these people are only a hop, skip and a jump away from being a fully fit, able-bodied Jobseekers Allowance claimant.”

In fact – for most of these people – life is like having to climb a mountain, every day, with no pausing to catch their breath or massage tired and aching muscles and bones. It is an endurance test the like of which most MPs have never experienced.

As Billy Connolly once said of the Pope: “If you don’t play the game, don’t make up the rules.”

That is a maxim that applies here – and our ignorant ruling class had better realise that before somebody takes the law into their own hands.

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Found: The book that helps the government smear the sick as ‘malingerers’

 

Denied benefit: This is the late Karen Sherlock. Her illnesses included chronic kidney disease, a heart condition, vitamin B12 deficiency, anaemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, underactive thyroid, asthma, diabetic autonomic neuropathy, gastropaeresis, and diabetic retinopathy. She died on June 8, 2012, of a suspected heart attack, after the Department for Work and Pensions stopped her Employment and Support Allowance. John LoCascio would describe her as a malingerer. Considering the list of her illnesses, how would you describe him?

Denied benefit: This is the late Karen Sherlock. Her illnesses included chronic kidney disease, a heart condition, vitamin B12 deficiency, anaemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, underactive thyroid, asthma, diabetic autonomic neuropathy, gastropaeresis, and diabetic retinopathy. She died on June 8, 2012, of a suspected heart attack, after the Department for Work and Pensions stopped her Employment and Support Allowance.
John LoCascio would describe her as a malingerer. Considering the list of her illnesses, how would you describe him?

Some of our least favourite people contributed to a book entitled Malingering and Illness Deception in 2003, that seems to provide much of the ammunition used by the current government to demonise claimants of disability and incapacity benefits.

One of the relevant chapters is ‘Malingering, insurance medicine and medicalization of fraud’ by John LoCascio of the criminal American insurance giant Unum, that has been heavily involved in British social security work since the 1990s.

The other is ‘Origins, practice and limitations of Disability Assessment Medicine’ by Mansel Aylward, the Unum puppet who was formerly chief medical officer at the Department for Work and Pensions.

These are the two charmers who put forward a perversion of Professor George Engels’ biopsychosocial theory that calls an individual’s illness into question, rather than treating it, to the then-Department of Social Security back in the 1990s.

The assertion that it was a tool to reduce claimant numbers can be proved by the fact that Mr Aylward was asked to change the test used to determine whether a claimant deserved benefit, in order to reduce the flow of claimants with mental health problems. When politicians ask for specific results, you know impartiality has gone out the window!

Look at the title of the book: It labels incapacity and disability claimants as “malingerers”, defined in the book’s first chapter as those who engage in “the intentional production of false or exaggerated symptoms motivated by external incentives” – in this case, the desire to receive state benefits.

This fits with what we know of the Unum-influenced benefit system already – that claimants are to be treated as if they are trying to cheat the system, unless they can prove to a state-provided official (not necessarily medically-trained) – who has been briefed to find ways to prevent them receiving the benefit – that they are unwell. Their own doctor’s reports are ignored.

Let’s look at LoCascio’s chapter. He starts by suggesting that “disability-related programmes in both the public and private sectors are faced with increasing numbers of disability claims despite improved health care and job design (the disability paradox).”

Already we are in the realm of fantasy as he fails to mention the logical reasons for these increases, which include poor implementation of health and safety measures in the workplace under ‘light touch’ regulation, and the discovery of new medical conditions whose causes are unknown and which require protracted study before they are understood – all made possible by the “improved health care” to which Mr LoCascio refers.

Amusingly, LoCascio also claims that the commercial insurance industry “is neither medically nor legally driven. It is driven by societal imperatives”. What a whopper! Commercial insurance is driven by the desire for money. That is why his company has a criminal conviction to its name – it changed its medical procedures to make it almost impossible for anyone to claim successfully that their Unum health insurance policy had matured.

Much of the remainder of his chapter attempts to convince the reader that the lack of data available – to support claims that a medical patient is “malingering” – should not be used as evidence that they really are ill. He asks the reader to believe that three questions should be asked: Did the patient understand the medical issues? Are the patient’s reported and actual behaviours consistent through time and across observers? And are the functional capacities in question (the patient’s abilities) well-defined?

What a cheat.

It seems perfectly likely that any patient will understand the medical issues informing their condition. However, in a Work Capability Assessment it is common for the assessor to have a completely different opinion of what those issues are. This discrepancy allows the assessor to find fault with the benefit claim.

The second question supports evidence of those who have read assessment reports claiming that patients did not display the behaviours expected of a person with their condition – one famous example was that the patient was not “rocking back and forth”. The simple reason for this was that their condition did not display in that manner but the assessor – who was not an expert in this field of medicine – did not know that because the only advice available was a biased screed from the Unum-influenced DWP.

The final question – are the functional capacities in question well-defined? – can be defeated with a simple, two-word counter-question: By whom?

Also of interest is the concept of ‘Functional Capacity’ (FC). LoCascio argues that a person should not be expected to be incapable of any type of work, just because they are incapable of one. His example is that a person limited to typing for 20 minutes due to forearm pain may be able to play piano for an hour. This is entirely possible but contradicts one of the quotations Mr LoCascio uses four pages previously: “The question of disease—that and nothing more—is the one for the physician to determine” (Drewy 1896). It is not the assessor’s job to dream up functions a claimant might be able to carry out and then discount a claim for benefits on the basis of that possibility. That is not evidence; it is fantasy.

All of the above questions are also rendered pointless by the simple fact that a claimant’s condition may be variable. LoCascio acknowledges this! However, he then goes right off the rails: “I favour a series of three questions: ‘Please describe a bad day. Please describe a good day. Please tell me how many good days and bad days you have in an average week.’ Armed with this knowledge about any particular symptom and the corresponding reduction in an FC, the medical resource can proceed to analyse the consistency of the history against the medical or observational data.”

That is an inaccurate assumption. When you are ill with (for example) fibromyalgia, there can be a huge range of difference between days. Sometimes Mrs Mike has seemed able to function almost normally (she can never walk far without suffering a huge amount of pain in the following days, as an example of why she only seems more able); other times she has been confined to the sofa for days on end in terrible pain for which medical science currently has no alleviation. At other times her condition may be anywhere between those extremes. Asking for a description of a good or bad day, or how many of these take place in an average week, is not only pointless – it hinders understanding of the condition.

“In conclusion,” LoCascio writes, “the most important product of the medical consultant is clear, credible, and defensible
documentation.” It seems strange, then, that the most clear, credible and defensible documents – those written by the patient’s doctor – are the first to be ignored in any Work Capability Assessment.

What we have here is a propaganda screed, riddled with inconsistencies and running against reason, that has been used to support the government’s position on sickness and disability benefits. As an argument in favour of current policy, it is worse than useless. In fact, it should be a tool for campaigners to use against that policy.

It tells us why a claimant who lives in agony every day should be outraged when assessors use LoCascio’s nonsense to explain away their pain.

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Petition demands fibromyalgia test be fit to work

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The Department for Work and Pensions is being told to sort out its benefit assessment system after campaigners said it is rigged against people who suffer from Fibromyalgia.

The petition – ‘Change DWP Medicals for Fibromyalgia’ – may be found here.

Long-term readers will know that Fibromyalgia is one of the conditions suffered by Mrs Mike, partner of Vox Political writer Mike Sivier. She has hijacked this space to post the following message from the petitioners:

“In brief, the petition asks that Department of Work and Pensions medicals for Fibromyalgia be carried out by a qualified rheumatologist, and that the decision regarding the receipt of benefits not be based on the current point-scoring system.

“The full petition reads:

“‘We, the undersigned, call on the British Government to ask that DWP medicals for Fibromyalgia be carried out by a qualified rheumatologist, and that the decision made about the receipt of benefit not be based on a point scoring system.’

“‘At the moment the DWP are using an outside agency to carry out medicals on people with medical conditions, and using a point scoring system to decide whether or not people are entitled to benefits.

“‘Most of the medicals are carried out by a nurse or other healthcare professional in less than an hour by asking a few targeted questions. With a condition like Fibromyalgia, it takes a qualified rheumatologist to diagnose the condition and understand the treatment that needs to be implemented to attempt to manage the pain of the condition.

“‘A rheumatologist would understand the pain and associated problems that Fibromyalgia sufferers face on a daily basis. Yet the nurse or health care professional that fills in the forms for the medical sees someone for less than an hour with no understanding of the condition and how it affects each person individually.

“‘It is not possible for someone of this level to understand the issues that Fibromyalgia suffers face, and the medicals should at the very least be carried out by a rheumatologist.

“‘During the medical you are assessed on how much you can move in certain directions. At no point are they taking any interest in how much pain you are in whilst this is going on, or how many painkillers you have to take afterwards.

“‘A favourite question is, “How far can you walk without discomfort?” The answer for a most Fibromyalgia sufferers is over 200 metres if they absolutely have to. What they don’t ask is, “How much pain are you in?” Most Fibromyalgia sufferers are in pain before they start to walk; walking just increases the pain.

“‘The point scoring system is stupid and unfair and needs to be abolished. Fibromyalgia sufferers are being consistently turned down for benefits that they should be entitled to, as this is a condition recognised by the DWP – and I quote, “Professor Aylward, on behalf of the DWP, reaffirmed that the DWP recognises fibromyalgia as a real and disabling condition, and not just something that is ‘all in the mind.'” If this is recognised by the DWP as being a “real and disabling condition” then why are diagnosed sufferers being refused DLA and ESA?

“‘It has been reported that Fibromyalgia Sufferers often suffer more pain than people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

“‘Despite the DWP’s statement, Fibromyalgia sufferers are being discriminated against, as the condition is seen as “invisible”, like many other conditions.'”

To sign the petition, go to this site and click the “Sign the petition” button near the bottom of the page. For more Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Natural Wellness news, sign up for free HealthWatch newsletters.

That’s the end of Mrs Mike’s bit. As someone who lives with a person who has Fibromyalgia, dear reader, you may safely conclude that I know a fair few things about the subject myself. I sat in on Mrs Mike’s work capability assessment and I can vouch for the truth of the statements regarding questions asked during that interview and the physical examinations that take place.

Mrs Mike’s mobility was checked very thoroughly during her assessment but no interest has ever been shown in the fact that she spent the next three days on the sofa in our living room, unable to move because of the pain she was suffering.

The question about walking is far more subjective. Obviously, after the WCA, Mrs Mike couldn’t walk anywhere without discomfort but, even when she is well enough to move, pain always sets in within a few paces and the chance to sit down is regarded as a blessed relief.

Yet Mansel Aylward (for it was he) said the DWP recognises Fibromyalgia as a “real and disabling condition”.

While these tests are carried out by people who are not qualified to recognise the symptoms of the condition and the problems it causes, the DWP is only paying lip-service to its claims about Fibromyalgia.

Please sign the petition and help ease the lives of people with Fibromyalgia across the UK.

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The fakery and failure behind the DWP’s new ‘health’ scheme

131109doublespeak

It seems that the Department for Work and Pensions is sticking to the ‘Adolf Hitler’ model of public relations: If you tell a big lie and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The press release announcing the new ‘Health and Work Service’ is riddled with long-debunked old lies – and one new statement that deserves our scrutiny.

This is the press release used by the BBC in its article on Saturday, telling us that the new, privately-run service is needed to combat the high cost of long-term absence from work.

It seems to be the DWP’s new practice to pass announcements to – let’s call them “trusted” – media outlets before putting them up on the government’s own press website, as a kind of test-run, allowing any credibility problems to be fixed before the government commits itself in an official way.

That’s why the announcement appeared on the government website yesterday (Monday) – two days after the BBC broke the story. Now – in just half the time it took to appear – let’s look at why it’s a load of rubbish.

“As many as 960,000 employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between October 2010 and September 2013, the government has revealed,” the document begins.

Oh really? The DWP reached this figure by applying the findings of a survey, showing the ratio of long-term absences to total days of sickness absence, to findings by the Labour Force Survey showing the total number of days of sickness absence in the UK. That’s 9,000 sick days and 70 absences, applied to an average of 120 million sick days per year. This is based on 2,019 interviews with employees. There’s just one problem.

At the time covered by these surveys, there were around 4.9 million private sector employers.

Considering the huge size difference between the sample surveyed and the body it represents, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the figure is accurate. If it is right, it would be by luck; it’s probably wrong. The figure might as well have been made up – and you should treat it as though it was.

“The government has already taken big steps in getting people on long-term sick benefits back into work as part of the government’s long-term economic plan, with almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010-” Let’s stop there and examine the information content of this sentence so far.

The “government’s long-term economic plan” is a phrase that is being shoe-horned into every press release possible and means nothing. There never was a “long-term economic plan”, and there isn’t one now. Have you seen it? Of course not – it doesn’t exist. This is just a comforting nonsense inserted to lull people into false security that somebody knows what they are doing; I suspect the newly-privatised “nudge” unit may have had something to do with this.

As for “almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010”, check out this interview with Iain Duncan Smith, published in the Telegraph & Argus in 2010. He said: “I intend to move 1.5 million off incapacity benefit by 2014.”

It’s now 2014. We don’t have up-to-the-minute figures but on November 13 last year, the DWP press office helpfully tweeted us its then-current figure for people moving off incapacity benefits in a handy chart: 156,000.

140211fakes

That is a long way from a quarter of a million, and only around one-tenth of the Secretary-in-a-State’s 2010 target.

“- and almost a million who put in a claim actually have been found fit for work.” This is a bare-faced lie. It relates to a statement that 980,400 people were judged capable of work between 2008 and March 2013, but there are two problems with this. Firstly, it does not take into account the number of successful appeals against the ‘fit for work’ judgement (125,700); when adjusted to account for these, the total drops to 854,700. Secondly, this refers to the cumulative number of ‘fit for work’ outcomes of initial functional assessments since October 2008, and it seems likely that many people will have made repeat claims after being knocked off-benefit by an adverse decision. We do not know how many people have done this. Therefore the figure is meaningless.

So far, the DWP has told us that working people get sick (no surprises there), that it has failed to reach its target for clearing people off incapacity benefit and that its work capability assessment system is failing to push as many off-benefit as it should, because it is riddled with errors.

How does this connect with the creation of a new ‘Health and Work Service’, dedicated to ensuring that people who spend more than four weeks at a time off work with an illness get back into their job with a minimum of difficulty?

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

This is a scheme to ensure that people are discouraged from claiming incapacity benefits; the idea is that a drop in new claims, coupled with the number of uncontested ‘fit for work’ decisions, might lead to a larger drop in the number of active claims – which means the amount of money being paid out in benefits would also drop.

Inclusion of the word ‘health’ in the title of the new service is misleading, as it seems unlikely that consideration of an employee’s physical condition will have anything to do with the aim of the exercise.

Look at what the release has to say: “The Health and Work Service will offer a work-focused occupational health assessment and case management to employees in the early stages of sickness absence.”

It continues: “The work-focused occupational health assessment will identify the issues preventing an employee from returning to work and draw up a plan for them, their employer and GP, recommending how the employee can be helped back to work more quickly.”

Health doesn’t get a look-in.

No, what we’re most probably seeing is an expansion of the “biopsychosocial” method employed in work capability assessments, in an attempt to convince sick people that their illnesses are all in their minds. Don’t expect this approach to be used for people with broken limbs or easily-medicated diseases; this is for the new kinds of ‘subjective illness’, for which medical science has not been prepared – ‘chronic pain’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, fibromyalgia and the like.

People with these conditions will probably be sent back to work – with speed. Their conditions may worsen, their lives may become an unending hell of pain and threats – I write from experience, as Mrs Mike spent around two years trying to soldier on in her job before finally giving up and claiming her own incapacity benefits – but that won’t matter to the DWP as long as they’re not claiming benefits.

That is what we can all expect from the new ‘service’.

It will be a fake, necessitated by failure.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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Here’s why Labour needs to go a lot further to win back our trust

130922unumlabour

Only days after Ed Miliband announced a Labour government would sack Atos, the party’s conference is hosting an event part-funded by the architects of the ‘work capability assessment’ administered by that company – the criminal American insurance giant Unum.

‘New thinking on the welfare state’ is a fringe event taking place at the Labour conference on Monday, September 23, organised by the right-wing thinktank Reform (which has Unum as one of its funders) and sponsored by the Association of British Insurers (which includes Unum among its members). Does anybody doubt that it has been arranged in order to give Unum a chance to influence high-ranking party members? No?

Then consider: This is a private round-table policy seminar, staged by Anne McGuire MP. Rank and file Labour members aren’t invited – attendance is by invitation only. Can you smell a rat? Still no?

The event has already been staged at the Liberal Democrat conference (by Steve Webb MP, whoever he is), and will also be a feature of the Conservative Party conference, courtesy of that turncoat floor-crossing slime Lord Freud. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out that Unum wants to ensure that all three parties have the same social security/welfare policy, going into the next election – and that Unum continues to figure prominently in the formulation of that policy.

If you didn’t smell a rat infestation before, by now you’re probably wondering why pest control hasn’t been called.

Ed Miliband knows that any change of the organisation administering work capability assessments is purely cosmetic; the Conservative-led Coalition itself is bringing in other companies to carry out the work, and Capita has already been taken on to carry it out in some areas.

It is the policy itself that must change.

Unum knows all about that policy. The company came up with it in the 1990s as a way to combat claims on its health insurance policies for ‘subjective’ illnesses such as ‘chronic pain’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease and others – by aggressively disputing whether a claimant was ill.

It based its new test on the Biopsychosocial Model of illness developed by the psychiatrist George Engel, which is itself an unproved theory. Unum removed the bio- and -social aspects in order to concentrate on the ‘psycho’ – the claim that a person’s illness is all in their mind; that they are imagining it.

This worked very well for the company until the American people realised that they were being diddled out of their insurance money and very large lawsuits were launched that ended with the company having a criminal record in several US states.

Undaunted by this, Unum branched into the UK and cosied up with then-social security minister Peter Lilley, who wanted to cut the number of people claiming disability benefits. Unum saw an opportunity here, with a long-term goal of making state disability benefits useless to the British citizen and forcing them to pay out for the companies duff health insurance policies – which had already fallen foul of the law in America.

That’s why the work capability assessment takes precedence over any evidence your doctor might provide to support your claim, and it’s also why doctors are being actively discouraged from providing any evidence at all; that’s why UK law currently sees a glowing future for people who may be paralysed, but for one finger, as a button pusher; that’s why people with Parkinson’s Disease or other degenerative conditions are being told they will be able to work again in the future; and that’s why thousands upon thousands of people have died as a result of the current policy – especially since the Conservative-led Coalition came into office in 2010.

Meanwhile, Unum has begun a mass-marketing campaign to encourage able-bodied British citizens to invest in ‘Income Protection Insurance’ and a scheme known as the ‘Back-up Plan’. These are only available via the workplace, and it is understood that it has been designed to ensure that the company can resist paying out if anybody should be unlucky enough to have to make a claim.

So you see, the plan is to leave the sick and disabled of this country with no support whatsoever; they can either take out Unum’s insurance policies, pay the company a fortune in premiums and get nothing in return – or they can throw themselves at the mercy of a state which has no mercy and be refused the benefits for which their taxes have been paying ever since they were old enough to pay taxes in the first place.

Either way, Unum wins. For younger readers, it’s like the plot of the prequel trilogy in the Star Wars saga, where the character who becomes the Emperor engineers a war in which he controls both sides. So you see? Those films weren’t as bad as we all thought.

But of course, any person or organisation that intentionally creates a parallel between itself and the most evil character in recent fiction should absolutely not be anywhere near the real-life political decision-makers of this or any other country.

That’s why Mo Stewart, the retired healthcare professional and disability researcher who has spent four years examining the relationship between Unum and the UK government, has contacted Ms McGuire, demanding to know why she is having anything to do with the firm.

She wrote: “Given the amount of evidence against the practice of the dangerous corporate giant, Unum Insurance, and the fact that Labour MPs have exposed their influence with government during debate, the British disabled community are wondering why you would chose to host a fringe meeting by Unum at the conference on Monday?

“‘New Thinking on the Welfare State’ it seems is the title of the meeting, and they should know since Unum have been helping to systematically destroy the welfare state, as welcomed by various governments, since 1994.

“If you were planning to cause offence, you couldn’t have done a better job.

Keep betraying the British disabled people and you’ll be waiting in the wings for a lot longer before Labour ever return to Government.

“I have spent the past 4 years exposing the links between the DWP, Atos Healthcare & UNUM Insurance. Some of your colleagues are very familiar with my work, which is to be considered by the UN within weeks, and I suggest that if you wish to be taken seriously as the Shadow Minister for Disabled People then you need to be familiar with this evidence.”

This blog wholeheartedly supports Mo Stewart’s position.

If you want to add your support, you can contact Anne McGuire by emailing anne.[email protected] – and you might wish to include Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne (while he’s still there): [email protected] and [email protected]

If you’d like to do more, feel free to broadcast that facts about Unum as widely as you can. There seems to be a media blackout on mention of this criminal organisation’s involvement with the state, so you cannot rely on the national news media. This means word of mouth – viral networking – is the only alternative.

Spread the word.

Oh, and Ed? Mr Miliband? We’ll all be waiting for you to make a slightly more solid commitment to the British people. You know what it is because we’ve made it perfectly clear already:

New policies on sickness, disability and incapacity benefits that are humane to claimants and rely on real medical evidence – not the opinions of an unqualified ‘decision-maker’ at the DWP.

Expel Unum from any position in which it may influence the government – including fringe events at party conferences. This may mean dismantling the DWP altogether as that organisation appears to have been terminally compromised.

End the work capability assessments. Find a different way to assess people’s ability to work – perhaps one that involves knowledge of what jobs are available and whether employers have any intention to take on people with limited abilities… Something practical, rather than the dribble that masquerades as current government policy.

And, for goodness’ sake, get rid of Byrne (and McGuire… and let’s not forget Stephen Timms) and replace them with backbenchers who actually understand and sympathise with the plight of benefit claimants who have been made to suffer under a needlessly brutal system.

You don’t dare betray the British people again.

If you do, you’ll have more than eggs to dodge, whenever you dare show your face in public.

The DWP: Where incompetence is described as a ‘positive benefit outcome’

Good shot: Work and Pensions secretary Iain 'Returned to Unit' Smith takes delivery of the nation's verdict on his management of the benefits system. No wonder Britain is falling apart, if the entire Coalition government works on similar lines.

Good shot: Work and Pensions secretary Iain ‘Returned to Unit’ Smith takes delivery of the nation’s verdict on his management of the benefits system. No wonder Britain is falling apart, if the entire Coalition government works on similar lines.

The Department for Work and Pensions is now such a shambles it should be a national scandal.

Not only do its ministers try to deceive you about its purposes and successes (12,000 people did NOT sign off benefits because of the cap, for example, and they still won’t tell us how many people died in 2012 while going through the ESA assessment procedure), but ground-level workers are praised if inappropriate action on claims results in a sick or disabled person being refused benefit or their claim being shut down. This incompetence is described as a ‘positive benefit outcome’.

I write from experience – Mrs Mike appears to be one such ‘positive benefit outcome’, despite our best efforts to prevent this.

Let me tell you a tale. I shan’t go into all of Mrs M’s details as they’re not really necessary and some of them are disturbing; suffice it to say that she has multiple long-term conditions.

She was subjected to a Work Capability Assessment for ESA in July last year, and received notification dated July 17 that she had been put into the work-related activity group, commencing August 14. This meant she would have until August 13 this year to recover from conditions which have plagued her for more than a decade; a totally unrealistic target invented by people whose main aim is to sell bogus insurance policies (see previous articles on Unum).

Being in the WRAG means that you have to try to prepare for work, with guidance to help introduce you back into the job market. Mrs M waited very patiently to be contacted about this, and was eventually called in to the local Job Centre Plus in December last year – one-whole-third of the way through her claim period.

Arrangements were made for her to have a telephone interview with a representative from a company that provides help in getting people back to work, but there were more delays. When it finally happened, the lady on the line told me: “I’ve spoken to your partner and from what she tells me, we can’t do anything to help her. She’s not going to get better in the timeframe within which we work. I know people with fibromyalgia and that’s just not going to happen. I recommend that you appeal against the decision to put her in the work-related activity group… Ask for a review of the decision, with a view to going into the support group. Go back to her doctor and request reassessment.”

We sought advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau over the possibility of making an appeal, and it seemed that there were legitimate grounds for doing so – not just the word of the work programme provider (my understanding is that this is the occupation of the lady who phoned us) but also medical evidence that had come to light after the WCA. So, with CAB help, Mrs M put in her appeal in February. She has yet to receive a response from the Department for Work and Pensions.

In May, however, she did receive another claim form. I filled it out for her (writing for prolonged periods increases the pain) and we sent it off on May 17. There has been no acknowledgement of receipt and the DWP has never mentioned it since.

This is unsurprising as we have had no contact at all from the DWP, from the time we received that form until yesterday (August 19), when Mrs M telephoned the Job Centre to find out what’s going on. Inevitably, this led to the phone being handed to me. “Oh yes,” said the man on the end of the line. “This claim terminated on August 13.”

So it seems the DWP is now in the habit of closing claims without informing the claimants. (In fact this is the second time someone I know has experienced this impoliteness; it happened to someone else in March).

We are now unexpectedly having to deal with the loss from our household income of more than £110 per week – that’s nearly £6,000 per year. We had hoped to avoid the possibility of this happening by means of the appeal, but the gentleman at the Job Centre helped us out there as well: “Yes, an appeal has been logged.” I asked what we being done. “It doesn’t say.”

So nothing has been done, then.

This is a serious matter. Firstly, the decision after the WCA was incorrect – Mrs Mike should have been put in the support group but was put in the WRAG instead. This could be because assessors are on orders to put only around 12 or 13 per cent of claimants into the support group, whether their conditions demand it or not, on the orders of ministers at the DWP.

Then there’s the nonexistent handling of the appeal. The DWP seems to be pretending it hasn’t happened.

Then there’s the repeat ESA50 form in May. What happened to that?

And finally there’s the complete – and no doubt intentional – failure to notify Mrs M of the termination of her benefit, a termination that should not have taken place if the DWP had done its job properly.

Is this what happens when the government lays off more than 400,000 public sector workers – the system seizes up because nobody can do the job properly anymore?

Fortunately – and full credit to him for doing this – my Liberal Democrat MP tweeted me yesterday evening and offered to help, so I have provided him with the details and hopefully something will come from that. We have a little cash coming in and a few friends who can help, so we are not in dire financial straits yet.

What if we didn’t have these safety nets, though?

By now, all readers of this blog should be well aware of the widely-reported statistic claiming that, on average, 73 people die every week because of bad decisions by the DWP – they either become depressed and commit suicide or the strain of going through the process worsens their health problem, the problem the DWP considered too inconsequential to merit receipt of benefit, until it kills them.

That statistic comes from a DWP report released more than a year ago and is now out of date. I have been trying to secure the release of up-to-date numbers but ministers have done everything in their power to prevent this and the only reasonable conclusion is that the death toll is now far worse.

A Freedom of Information request earlier this year was refused on the grounds that it was ‘vexatious’ and a demand for an internal review has been met with stony silence for more than a month. Today I emailed ministers to ask when they were going to respond or if I should just proceed to the next stage, which is a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

So you see, the DWP is in a terrible, terrible mess of incompetence rewarded and extravagant claims that amount to poorly-executed attempts at distraction fraud.

What if this is a microcosm for the entire Coalition government? What will be the result?

A weakened Britain, that’s what.

This blog has said it before and will say it again: They would kill us and call it ‘help’.

Are British workers being lured into health insurance that will never pay out?

unum

Working people in the UK could be facing a huge drain on their income, if they join an insurance scheme being offered by a discredited American firm.

It seems that the company behind the hated Work Capability Assessment that has denied disability benefits to thousands of genuinely sick and disabled people, has begun a mass-marketing campaign to encourage able-bodied members of the British public to invest in ‘Income Protection Insurance’, and another scheme known as the ‘Back-up Plan’.

This insurance scheme is only available via the workplace, and it is understood that it has been designed to ensure that the company can resist paying out whenever a claim is made.

In other words, if you join the scheme, you will be giving away your money to a criminal firm. If you become ill or suffer disability in the future, you will not receive a single penny of the insurance money that is due to you.

That is the allegation against Unum Insurance, the American giant that has spent more than two decades advising successive British governments on how to avoid paying sickness and disability benefits to the most deserving claimants in our society.

If you have been contacted in the workplace and offered a chance to take out this insurance, please get in touch. Your experience of this system and insights into its operating procedures could be invaluable.

For those who don’t know the Unum story, you can read some of it here. Unum’s bosses devised their current system to combat the rise of ‘subjective’ illnesses such as ‘chronic pain’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease.

The solution devised by the bosses was to reduce the number of successful claims it paid out, by aggressively disputing whether the claimant was ill. So the company skewed its medical examinations to its own favour by questioning illnesses that were “self-reported”, labelling some disabling conditions as “psychological”, and playing up the “subjective” nature of “mental” and “nervous” claims.

The acknowledged basis for this attitude is the Biopsychosocial Model of illness, developed by the psychiatrist George Engel – but it’s a bastardised version, removing the bio- and -social aspects and concentrating on the ‘psycho’. This version of the theory, as used by Unum, has been utterly discredited. It is nonsense, totally disregarding such inconvenient medical procedures as diagnosis and prognosis, or limited life expectancy.

But it proved a great success for Unum – so much so that the UK government sought advice from the company in the early 1990s, when Peter Lilley was running the Department of Social Security. He wanted to reduce the number of disability claimants on his books, and Unum was only too happy to help out. It has been at the heart of disability benefit policy ever since.

We have Unum to thank for the Work Capability Assessment (administered by another private firm, Atos – an IT firm that has no expertise in healthcare, even though that word occasionally appears on its company logo). The recommendations made by Atos representatives, following these assessments, have led to the deaths of at least 73 genuinely ill people every week (according to government figures that are now almost a year old), who have claimed Employment and Support Allowance (formerly Incapacity Benefit). The real figure may be much higher.

The Coalition government considers this to be a great achievement and has now begun expanding the Work Capability Assessment regime to cover claims for Disability Living Allowance, now branded the Personal Independence Payment, with criteria that are much more difficult to achieve.

We can all expect many more deaths to arise from this.

Now, it seems, Unum believes the UK is ripe for bleeding – and that is why it is trying to sell its bogus insurance to working people here.

If you have been contacted, please get in touch.

For further information (with annotations pointing to the really damning evidence) see ‘The Hidden Agenda’ by disability researcher Mo Stewart.

Mark Hoban: A message isn’t scaremongering if it’s true

Mark Hoban, sending even his colleagues to sleep in another Parliamentary debate.

Mark Hoban, sending even his colleagues to sleep in another Parliamentary debate.

Employment minister Mark Hoban has accused Parliament’s public accounts committee of “scaremongering” after it attacked the Department for Work and Pensions’ work capability assessment.

He said, according to the BBC: “Rather than scaremongering and driving down the reputation of the WCA, critics might like to acknowledge the fact that independent reviews have found no fundamental reforms are needed to the current process because of changes we’re making.”

That sounds a lot like self-justifying nonsense to me.

I wonder whether we may reasonably expect any better of him, when we know he edits comments on his own Facebook page to remove anything remotely critical. If you don’t believe me, just you go there and try it!

But okay, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and try examining the committee’s criticisms at ground-level. We all know my partner, Mrs Mike, has been – and is continuing to go through – the assessment system. Let’s go through the committee’s conclusions with reference to her example.

The first conclusion was that “the decision-making process for new Employment Support Allowance applications and Incapacity Benefit reassessments all too often leads to the wrong decisions and is failing far too many people”. The decision after Mrs Mike’s assessment was that she should go into the work-related activity group for ESA. It was only after she had an interview with a WRA provider – six months after the assessment – that they told us the decision was wrong, she should be in the support group, and we should seek reassessment. So in our case, I find that the committee’s conclusion was ACCURATE.

Conclusion number two: “The Work Capability Assessment may unduly penalise people with specific health problems. The one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for particular groups, for example, people with mental health, rare or variable conditions. The process is too inflexible and makes it extremely difficult for individuals with particular conditions to demonstrate the impact of their conditions on their ability to work. Too often the process is so stressful for applicants that it can impact on their health.” Mrs Mike has fluctuating conditions – fibromyalgia, mental health problems, and a back condition that causes pain, although the level of that pain can vary from day to day. As I have demonstrated in my response to the first conclusion, she was put into the wrong group – in the opinion of a work-related activity provider employed by the Department for Work and Pensions. That’s pretty conclusive! I was present at the work capability assessment interview and can assure any doubters that it is an extremely stressful process – not just physically, because claimants have to prove the limits of their physical abilities, but also emotionally. It took her days to recover her composure after the assessment. There are continuing issues to do with mental health, as the current nature of the process – leaving people waiting for months at a time before a decision, or until they can move on to the next step, then the disappointment of being told there was a mistake and they have to go through the whole process again – seems engineered to create mental instability. Therefore I must find that in this case also, the committee’s conclusion was ACCURATE.

The next conclusion states: “The Department does not know the full cost to the taxpayer of the overall decision-making process for Work Capability Assessments. Whilst some costs are known, such as the £26.3 million paid to HM Courts and Tribunals Service for its work on appeals, there is little information on the cost and impact on the National Health Service or on some of the internal interactions within the Department.” Whilst it is true that Mrs Mike has been to see her doctors (physical and mental) since her assessment took place, and throughout the ensuing mess, I would not try to put a price on that extra process. Therefore I cannot say for sure whether this conclusion is accurate or not. However, we all know that a high proportion of appeals are won – more than 90 per cent of those in which the claimant has sought legal representation, in fact, so it is reasonable to believe that the government is paying a high price to the courts. On that basis alone, it is reasonable to question whether the government is getting value for money.

Conclusion four: “The Department has failed to develop a competitive market for medical services. The market for medical service providers is under-developed and Atos Healthcare is currently the sole supplier for all the Department’s medical assessments. It has also been awarded two of the three current contracts for the Personal Independence Payment. The Department is too relaxed about the risk to value for money resulting from a dependence on a monopoly supplier, and on the limitations this has on the Department’s capacity to remedy poor performance.” Personally, I am unhappy with the thought that a profit-centred marketplace should be created around people’s health. This is why I opposed the Health and Social Care Act that has caused so much harm to the NHS in England since it became law. However, the point that it is hard to remedy poor performance when a single company holds a monopoly on assessments is reasonable. Mrs Mike’s assessment was carried out by Atos. That assessment reached a wrong conclusion. Who will carry out her reassessment? Atos. You see the problem.

Worse than that, though, is the underlying issue – that Atos has been briefed to push as many people off-benefit as it can. This is why the work capability assessment is based on the “psycho” part of the biopsychosocial model, itself a discredited medical theory. The aim of the assessment process is to tell claimants that their illnesses or disabilities are all in their minds, and that in fact they are perfectly capable of work. Considering the Labour Party’s policy is reprehensibly shoulder-to-shoulder with that of the Coalition in this regard (Liam Byrne very recently said Labour would continue reforms of social security benefits along similar lines) there seems very little hope for people with disabilities in the future. I find the committee’s conclusion ACCURATE in the case of Mrs Mike, and note with trepidation that the future seems bleak, no matter what government we have in the future.

I do not intend to address the fifth and sixth conclusions as they seem to be operational matters within the Department for Work and Pensions. Before Mr Hoban claims any victories, I should add that all the reports I have seen tend to bear out the comments of the public accounts committee.

But the final conclusion states: “The Department must improve its internal processes to improve the quality of decision-making and contract management. The size of the Department and its impact on individuals and on the public purse requires us to have the utmost confidence in the capability of the Department to deliver. Robust systems are a crucial part of this. We are concerned that the Department is unduly complacent regarding the quality of the decision-making process, particularly given the hardship which can be caused to individuals when the decision is wrong.” Clearly, neither I nor Mrs Mike have any confidence in the DWP’s ability to deliver the right decision regarding a person’s ability to work. Therefore I find the committee’s comment about complacency ACCURATE. The hardship which can be caused to individuals is something my partner and I are being forced to face at the moment – as a possibility, should a reassessment decision go against her. We are all familiar with cases in which people have either died from the worsening of their health conditions (conditions denied by the DWP and Atos) or from suicide provoked by a worsening of their mental health due to the assessment process and fear for the future of themselves and their families. These are real issues.

By suggesting such fears are “scaremongering”, Mr Hoban hugely weakens his own case.