Larry Newman attended a work capability assessment in March 2010, when a degenerative lung condition made it impossible for him to go on working in the wood veneer showroom where he had spent much of his career. His weight had dropped from 10 to seven stone, and he had trouble breathing and walking.
The Atos staff member who carried out the medical test awarded him zero points. To qualify for employment and support allowance, the new sickness benefit, he needed to score 15 points, and in July he received a letter from jobcentre officials stating that he was not eligible for the benefit (worth around £95 a week) and would be fit to return to work within three months.
He was devastated by the decision, and dismayed to note a number of inaccuracies in the report that accompanied the letter. He decided to appeal against the decision, but before three months was up he died from his lung problems.
His widow, Sylvia Newman, recalls that one of the last things he said to her, as doctors put him on a ventilator, was: “It’s a good job I’m fit for work.” He was trying to make her laugh, she says, but it was also a reflection of how upset he had been by the conclusion of the medical test.
“He was so hurt by it. It made him so upset that they thought he was lying, and he wasn’t,” she says. “I think it added to him just giving up.”
Mrs Newman has lodged an official complaint, with the help of Citizens Advice staff, highlighting 12 inconsistencies in the report by the Atos assesser. It said her husband had been unaccompanied. “I was with him, although in his medical report they claimed that I was in the waiting room,” she says. The report says that Mr Newman’s pulse was fine, that he had no scars on his chest and that he managed to climb on to the examination bed without any problem. Mrs Newman says that her husband did not get on to the examination bed, that his pulse was not taken, and that the assesser did not look at his chest, otherwise he would have seen scars.
“He never touched Larry, he never took his pulse.There were endless inaccuracies,” she added, describing the report as “make-believe”.
They were both dismayed by the assesser’s casual attitude. “At one stage, he took a phone call. We were trying not to listen, but it seemed to be a personal call,” she says. “It went on for a few minutes. It wasn’t very professional.”
Although they had given written permission for Atos to seek written medical reports from Mr Newman’s hospital consultant, who had diagnosed extrinsic allergic alveolitis, the assesser said that he didn’t have a copy of his records or the questionnaire that he had filled in when he applied for the benefit.
“They could have just got a report from the hospital to see how sick he was. It seemed a pointless exercise,” Mrs Newman says, profoundly distressed as she recounts what happened.
She is angry at the treatment she and her husband received from Atos staff.
“They are charging the government a lot of money for these assessments, and I know that other very sick people have been treated as Larry was. I promised him I would pursue it. It wasn’t a fortune, and we were struggling to survive. It wasn’t anything he wasn’t entitled to.”
An Atos official said: “We are sorry to hear that Mr Newman has died. We cannot comment on individual cases. We do expect the highest standards from our staff. All complaints are taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated.”
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