February 17, 2013 5:06 pm

Atos subcontracts disability tests to NHS

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Atos, the French outsourcing company hired to carry out the government’s new disability assessments, has subcontracted much of the work back to the NHS.

NHS Trusts including University College London, Kings and York will deploy thousands of health professionals to carry out the assessments, which will determine whether people are entitled to extra money to help cope with disability.

Critics said the decision to subcontract work back to the public sector raised questions as to why Atos was needed.

“The reality is that only a few organisations have the staff and skills to do this job,” said Tony Wilson, director for policy and research at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion think-tank. “But if all the work is being contracted out from the public sector to the private sector and then back to the public sector, it begs the question of why it was contracted out in the first place or why the NHS didn’t bid directly?”

The assessments, beginning in just over six weeks, are part of the government’s decision to replace the disability living allowance with a personal independence payment (Pip).

Aimed at cutting the number of working age disability claimants by 20 per cent by 2015, the changes are part of the most radical overhaul of the welfare system in decades. The Department for Work and Pensions wrote to claimants notifying them of the shake-up last week.

Atos has won the bulk of the work, with a £400m contract over five years that covers the southeast and north of the country and about 75 per cent of disability living allowance claimants. It has set up an office in Stockton with approximately 150 staff initially, which will help the DWP reassess more than 3.2m people, or 11,000 people a week, by 2015.

But most of the frontline work, such as face to face interviews, will be carried out by 14 Atos subcontractors, including charities and private companies as well as NHS trusts. Assessors need to be registered practitioners – nurses, physiotherapists or occupational therapists.

The DWP said NHS trusts could have bid for contracts directly but none had done so. “We believe that it is right for Atos to partner with the NHS to offer Pip claimants familiar surroundings and experienced health professionals,” the department said.

The assessments – which initially begin with new claimants but will be rolled out to all existing beneficiaries by 2015 – will be much tougher than the existing regime. There will also be regular reassessments, rather than the benefit being awarded for life.

Atos has faced scrutiny in the past for its handling of work capability assessments for the government’s employment and support allowance, paid to sick or disabled people who are unable to work. The company emphasised that the DWP remains responsible for final decisions on who gets benefits.

“We provide the department with a report that sets out how clinical disability affects day to day living,” said Nick Barry, general manager of the Pip contract for Atos. “The DWP considers that, along with other evidence that may have been collected – from GPs, consultants and psychiatric nurses.”

Atos has described the Pips contract as a “significant win” for the group. Medical assessments for the DWP – which cover the employment support allowance and the new personal independent payment contracts – account for 10 per cent of the group’s UK sales but less than 2 per cent of its global revenues.

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