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AS the transfer from disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payments (PIP) continues, it is worthwhile examining how PIP works for those with multiple sclerosis (MS) in particular.
Within the PIP assessment guidelines, MS is given as an example of a type of condition where a claimant might not require a face-to-face assessment.
This isn’t what is happening on the ground, with the last recorded figures from The MS Society showing that one in three MS claimants had their benefits downgraded. In all, £6 million had been taken from MS claimants since the introduction of PIP.
This leads to the question as to whether claimants with a condition like MS, where symptoms may fluctuate, are particularly at risk?
If we factor in the difficulty getting specialist reports, the lack of neurological knowledge that healthcare assessors and decision-makers have, along with the rigid nature of the computer assessment, then that answer may be yes.
Steve and Anna, who both have MS, began their claims in 2017. Steve started his in the summer, with Anna completing her forms just before the Christmas period. Both had lifetime DLA before, a benefit that suited them.
In fact DLA suited the vast majority of claimants, so why was it replaced with PIP? We all know now that, despite the Tory government claiming these were essential “reforms,” they were in fact not a necessity but a political choice.
To push through these changes to DLA, which is a key “gateway” benefit, the government first had to demonise the benefit and those who had devised and administered it.
The problem was people with disabilities knew how much DLA helped them be as independent as possible. It helped cover part of the shortfall due to the costs directly associated with disability, that Scope estimate to be £570 on average a month.
When PIP was introduced the seemingly positive spin was that it was focusing on what a disabled person could do, not what they couldn’t do. However, it is only when you compare the two benefits side by side that you realise what a calculated move this was.
Under DLA people were awarded money on the basis of their disability and what they couldn’t do. Under PIP people lose money on the basis of what they can do.
This means any attempt to be independent, which may only be made possible due to DLA, would be penalised under PIP.
Steve is diagnosed with relapsing and remitting MS, while Anna has highly active MS also known as rapidly evolving MS.
The treatments available are by no means a cure and can cause serious lifelong conditions. MS remains an incurable, degenerative and progressive disability.
Steve and Anna both completed their forms but both found getting detailed neurological reports or letters from their GPs to be impossible, meaning they had to try and get these reports from specialists involved in their respective cases.
This again proved to be impossible within the timeframe given by the DWP.
They were able to list the contact details of the many specialists involved in their treatment, but not having such medical evidence to back up their claims meant it was inevitable they would have to undergo a face-to-face assessment.
There are enough horror stories out there to know that danger lurks for even seriously disabled people like Steve and Anna in a PIP assessment.
Under DLA a claimant is an expert in their own disability alongside the medical professionals who treat them. Under PIP the claimants are treated with suspicion, grilled, challenged and, as many people with disabilities believe, lied to in order to catch them out.
Steve felt far too much weight was placed on this assessment.
“It was like they hadn’t even read my form. Everything I put on there was asked again. I got a strong feeling they hadn’t contacted any of my medical professionals.”
On his form Steve had mentioned the impact MS had on his mental health.
“I had to discuss my suicidal feelings in front of my father, which was deeply distressing. Yet even after all that, no mention of it went on my report as the assessor thought because I spoke clearly and maintained eye-contact I was fine.”
He felt they did understand that his symptoms could fluctuate, but that he was asked questions where it was hard to give definitive answers.
Likewise, Anna had similar problems in her assessment.
“I could feel the HCA [healthcare assessor] getting more and more irate because she was pushing me for a yes/no answer.”
After her assessment, Anna asked for a copy of the HCA report.
“It was full of lies. At one point she says I ran my fingers through my hair, which she then says means I have full upper body mobility.”
Steve received his decision that he had lost all of his benefit and now feels he has no choice but to appeal, due to the massive costs he faces simply due to his MS.
“I am thankful for the support from my wife and family, I can’t imagine how people deal with this on their own,” he says.
Anna has also just received the news that she has lost the top rate of her mobility component, meaning she will lose her adapted Motability car.
With this car she was able to go into work for a limited number of hours a week. Now, as she considers what to do, her overriding concern is whether she’ll ever be able to work again.
Far from being an exempt condition, MS claimants like Steve and Anna and thousands of others in a similar position are having their benefits downgraded or cut completely.
This has been devastating for claimants, with any loss in benefit directly hitting their ability to be independent.
Furthermore, what incentive will there be for disabled people to try out new activities, voluntary or paid work when they know they any such actions will be penalised by PIP?
The changeover from DLA to PIP, for claimants with MS and all other serious disabilities, has been a calculated and pernicious attack from a government that claims to be “disability confident.”
RF Hunt is the author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).
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