Trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare as money runs out: The reality of life under Atos
More evidence emerged of lives ruined by private contractor Atos today, as MPs issued a devastating attack on the government for awarding them new disability contracts despite their failure on work capability assessments.
Evidence handed in to the public accounts committee shows one individual with osteoporosis was denied help and told to use "lighter pans" to prepare meals.
Another individual suffering from the debilitating illness fibromyalgia, which causes chronic fatigue and muscle pain, was unable to pay for rent or food due to months-long delays in the assessment process.
The public accounts committee report paints a picture of a benefit decision-making system which collapsed into chaos, with Atos taking up to eight months to decide about people's entitlement for personal independence payments (PIP).
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to pilot the scheme, so when it was introduced there was no information about how long assessments would take and how many face-to-face consultations would be required.
It also handed the assessment contract to Atos, which had been widely criticised for the way it handled the work capabilities assessments.
Bafflingly, the department said it ignored the bidders' previous record in providing assessments for employment support allowance when deciding whom to award contracts to.
The public accounts committee accused the firm of misleading officials in its bid for the contract.
"We are concerned that Atos appears to have included incorrect and potentially misleading information in its bid for the contract," committee chair Margaret Hodge said.
"Atos stated in its tender document that it had 'contractual agreements' in place with a national network of 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and over 650 physiotherapy practices to provide assessments. This turned out not to be true.
In evidence seen by the committee, one woman said she was written off by assessors despite being unable to write or put on a coat.
"I answered every question honestly, down to my fingers locking and me dropping the frying pans," she said.
"I told her the pain blocks out hunger and thirst and it's a daily struggle to keep weight on. I told her that I can't manage my medication as I can take it too often to help with pain. I couldn't do most of the physical. I had to ask the woman to help me put my coat back on as I can't on most days due to the pressure on my neck and spine.
"A few days later, I received their reply, and was a rating of two where eight being entry level and 12 being highest. In the decisions maker's reasoning, they had ignored everything I said.
"Everything, and the only area I received the two in was: 'At assessment it was indicated you would benefit using lighter pans to prepare a simple meal. I accept you need to use an aid to be able to prepare and cook a simple meal.'
"It was insulting, I was disgusted that everything I had said fell on deaf ears and they had arbitrarily tossed me to the side to 'use lighter pans'."
Most complaints painted a picture of a scheme in disarray, with vulnerable disabled people being forced to wait months for an assessment and slowly running out of money. Many have even been forced to turn to food banks to make ends meet.
One young woman had suffered a stroke, leaving her partially disabled. She was in receipt of a limited amount of sick benefit from her employer, but was facing severe financial hardship without benefit payments.
A home visit tabled for mid-December 2013 was cancelled by contractor Capita at the last minute.
Her partner, who worked for the ambulance service, struggled to get time off work. He sent the company information about his availability, with the intention of being at the meeting to communicate with assessors and help his partner through.
However, the firm sent them a letter with an appointment in mid-February, despite the fact this was a day they had said they were not available.
He managed to switch shifts and stay at home, but the assessor never turned up. At no point did Capita try to communicate this to the couple.
"The personal stories we heard were shocking," Hodge said.
"We heard evidence of a claimant requiring hospital intervention as a result of the stress caused by the delays suffered, and another claimant who was unable to afford the specific diet required for diabetes and gastric problems while waiting for a decision."
By October 2013, the DWP had only made 16% of the decisions it was expected to have made by that time.
Terminally ill people were having to wait on average 28 days for a decision – 180% longer than expected.
Shadow disability minister Kate Green said: "This scathing criticism of the government's chaotic handling of PIP leaves serious questions about competence at Department for Work and Pensions.
"Thousands of disabled people are waiting months and months for essential help which means taxpayers are facing a huge bill to deal with the enormous backlog of personal independence payment assessments. If they continue at the current rate, the backlog could take up to 42 years to clear.
"David Cameron must urgently get a grip of this chaotic department to avoid personal independence payments going the same way as the crisis-hit Universal Credit programme."
Atos today denied that they had misled the DWP.
"The Department made clear that they were not misinformed during the tender process, that at the point of go live they knew our capacity, our partners and the number of centres we would be using," a spokesperson said.
"We completely refute any allegation of misinformation during the procurement process for Personal Independence Payment. Not only have we written to the Committee to clarify our position but we invited the National Audit Office in to scrutinise our documentation.
"That we could not have binding contracts in place before we signed a contract with the DWP is simply common sense and in no way misleading. What we did have were detailed written proposals from the suppliers."