BMA & RCGP deny supporting Tory ‘fit notes’ and ESA cuts

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Junior doctors fought the Tory government over their contracts and warned the BMA leaders not to collaborate with the Tories

THE BRITISH Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) have sought to repudiate the claims by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that they approved the ‘fit notes’ that the Tory government is using to deny people Employment Support Allowance (ESA) benefits.

Today, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee is publishing letters from the BMA and the RCGP claiming that neither organisation approved the wording of advice given by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to doctors on ‘fit notes’ and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants.

The DWP has persistently said that the wording of a letter (form ESA65B), which was sent to the GP of those claimants who had been unsuccessful in their claim, had been endorsed by both the BMA and the RCGP.

The wording suggested that GPs should not continue to supply fit notes to patients (formerly known as ‘sick notes’) even when they were in the process of appealing a decision, during which time they are still eligible to receive payments.

Dr Peter Holden, chair of the BMA’s professional fees committee, said: ‘BMA representatives attend meetings with the Department for Work and Pensions in an advisory capacity, and have done so for many years.

‘However, our remit is not to sign-off or approve government policies.

‘We have long said that neither the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) nor its predecessor processes are fit for purpose, and this letter is another example of doctors and patients having to work within the boundaries of an overly bureaucratic and obstructive system.

‘For patients going through the process of applying for ESA and those subsequently appealing any decision, we recognise this is an incredibly distressing time.

‘If a patient is denied ESA but is in the process of appealing, their GP should continue to provide them with fit notes so they are able to continue receiving payments, and we have issued guidance to members just this week clarifying this.

‘We support a revision of the letter to ensure that both doctors and their patients are crystal clear of expectations, and we will continue to offer advice on its drafting.’

The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee issued a press release yesterday under the heading ‘British Medical Association and Royal College of GPs both deny “agreeing” DWP advice to doctors on “Fit Notes” for ESA claimants’.

It said: ‘Following a series of distressing media reports about people dying as they await the result of the PIP and ESA assessments, the Committee is publishing the Royal College of GPs’ and the British Medical Association’s views on DWP’s advice to doctors on “Fit Notes” for people awaiting the outcome of an ESA appeal.’

The Committee asked both organisations for their input, following the DWP’s repeated claims that they had approved the advice, given in a letter (a form, ESA65B) to the GPs of people who have been denied ESA after assessment.

The Committee has described the assessment processes for disability/incapacity benefits as ‘gruelling’ and ‘error-ridden’, potentially forcing claimants into the DWP’s ‘arduous, protracted’ reconsideration and appeals process.

People who have been denied ESA at the assessment stage, but who are awaiting the results of their appeal are entitled to an ‘assessment rate’ of ESA, in recognition of the hardship they may endure during the potentially lengthy wait for their appeal.

However, in recent months the Committee has been investigating concerns that the advice the DWP is giving to doctors about the system and process is causing confusion, leading directly to claimants being left without essential income they are entitled to.

The DWP has asserted in a response to the Committee that agreement on the final wording of the revised ESA65B was obtained via the regular meetings DWP holds ‘with both the British Medical Association and Royal College of GPs’, and that the wording is the outcome of ‘close and extensive working between the DWP, BMA and the RCGP’.

BMA and RCGP members are demanding that all talks and all support being given to the government by their organisations be ended at once. If not their leaders should resign.