Some people find the medical assessments needed for certain benefits are unnecessarily stressful or even traumatic.
In order to prove you are eligible for certain Welfare Benefits, there are medical assessments for claimants. These generally apply to disability-related benefits, such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
Before attending an assessment for ESA, a claimant has to fill out an extensive Capability for Work form detailing all their medical conditions, medications, and costs associated with their illness or disability. There are far more questions about physical health or physical disability than about mental health. Following this 25 page form, the claimant is given an assessment date.
Clients have had assessment dates given to them with very short notice. They may not be mentally stable enough to go to an appointment with only a week’s notice, but may also be too frightened that it will negatively affect their application if they postpone it.
For our clients in Deptford, making the journey to the ESA assessment centre all the way in Marylebone can be daunting, or altogether impossible on their own. Consequently we often accompany clients to their assessments just so they have the courage to go. There’s another reason we like to accompany them: we’ve found that when an adviser goes along and takes note of everything said in the appointment, the claimant generally gets a fairer assessment.
You can sometimes claim travel money back from the DWP for a taxi, but only afterwards, and clients often don’t physically have enough money to pay for the cab in the first place, even if they can later be reimbursed.
The assessment itself is anticipated with a lot of anxiety for some clients. For those suffering with anxiety or depression, it can be a really daunting task to go through with. As an advice worker, I’ve had to reassure clients during the assessment to avoid total emotional breakdown, one client experiencing a panic attack at the beginning of the assessment.
In this experience, the assessor was not particularly sympathetic about the client’s need to calm down. The client was clearly struggling- they were sweating, shaking, and were not understanding simple questions they would normally be fine with. They were terrified they would be deemed capable for work when in fact they had not been able to work for many years.
MP Ruth George argued to the House of Commons that the conditions in medical assessments were damaging:
‘Not only do people have to undergo these cold, terrifying and impersonal assessments where they are concerned that they are being marked down … I have heard from women who say they have been curled up on the floor crying at having to remember their sexual abuse, with the assessor not even looking at them but simply repeating the question.’
You can read the full debate here.
The set questions seem to hinder the assessor from communicating in an understanding way. They may not have the appropriate training to communicate with those who may have learning difficulties and do not always explain things in a way that can be fully understood by the claimant.
Finally, medical assessors have been known to stretch the truth, putting in generic answers that fit in with the criteria of the examination, rather than taking fully into account what the claimant actually says. We genuinely see finished reports that state things the claimant never said, deeming them fit for work or ineligible for the benefits in question. (New post on lies in medical reports coming soon.)
Something has to change. Better informed environments that don’t traumatise claimants are a necessity for the system to be fair. The Welfare State is supposed to be a safety net for those who are disadvantaged, yet the most vulnerable people often feel they have to pass an intimidating exam just to prove they are in need.