Scottish doctors have slammed controversial French firm Atos over the 'fit to work' tests they carry out for the Department of Work and Pensions, with one telling a conference that their local assessment centre has been nicknamed "Lourdes", because claimants "go in sick and come out cured".
Glasgow GP Georgina Brown told the hall at the British Medical Association's Scottish GPs conference that the Atos tests were "an embarrassment to the coalition government and a disaster for patients," reported STV.
In a damning speech she added: "Ensuring the poor and sick become only poorer achieves nothing but pushing up the unemployment figures, increasing social inequality, increasing health inequalities and stripping patients of their security and self respect.
"They are struggling to navigate a system that does not support the most vulnerable in our society. Around 40% of appeals are successful. What does this say about a system where they get it wrong at least 40% of the time?"
Atos said it was "wrong to suggest appeals are the fault of Atos Healthcare," however The Huffington Post UK revealed in October that some one in five of Atos' "fit for work" judgements are overturned at appeal.
However Atos told STV that: "Of the 15% of benefit decisions appealed, recent figures show that an inaccuracy in the report from Atos Healthcare is the reason in only 0.3% of cases."
Another doctor, Colette Maule, said GPs were struggling to cope with additional demands made by the system.
"This is impacting on practice time, which would otherwise have been spent on health concerns," she said. "These assessments can have a devastating effect on patients' mental and physical health."
Atos said in a statement: "We only proactively write out to GPs for further medical evidence where we believe that receiving it may mean we can avoid a face-to-face assessment for the most disabled and unwell. This leads to around 17% of claimants not needing to attend an assessment."
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) also shoulders blame when accusations are levelled against Atos, who say they merely "apply the DWP’s criteria and policy to all of the assessments we provide."
Michael Meacher MP, who has repeatedly campaigned against the firm,laid out in his blog this week his disgust at the DWP's dealing with the issue.
The Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton described how DWP ministers refused to meet with him and a delegation from some of the key campaigning and analytical groups on fit to work assessments.
After the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith failed to reply to his request, Mark Hoban, the junior minister dealing with Atos' matters, replied to a parliamentary question on the matter with what Meacher described as "civil service speak for a flat no."
Meacher confronted Hoban, writing:
"I was taken aback at his aggressiveness and said 'But you can’t possibly do this , this is a matter of the highest political importance and it’s your responsibility to talk to and listen to key disability organisations about this matter, however contentious it might be.' He simply replied blankly “I’m not seeing you”, and repeated it 3 or 4 times. "
Meacher has now scheduled an Adjournment debate, on ‘Ministers’ refusal to accept a delegation on Atos Healthcare’ and has been to see the Speaker about what "the unprecedented and wholly unreasonable and unacceptable behaviour of DWP ministers."