Exclusive GPs are having to cope with rising levels of paperwork under the Government’s drive to reduce the benefits bill, with figures obtained by Pulse showing the number of requests to verify claimants’ ability to work have increased by over a fifth since the beginning of this year.
The figures show that the national crackdown on benefits has resulted in practices having to cope with increasing numbers of forms to support Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claims, which GPs say can take up to an hour of their time to fill out.
The figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show 136,000 ESA requests to medical professionals on behalf of the Government in the first three months of the year, the majority of which will be made to the patient’s GP.
This extrapolated across the whole year would total over 544,250 requests for the year - representing a 21% increase in ESA compared with the 448,800 requests made in 2012.
Requests for information from GPs have rocketed since ESA replaced incapacity benefit in 2008, when only 6,640 requests were made.
The GPC said it is meeting with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure that information requested by Atos Healthcare - which runs the DWP scheme - is more relevant.
The GPC also said that the ten calendar days GPs are given to supply further medical evidence for the claims is ‘not realistic’.
The DWP recently said it was planning to pilot a new approach to collecting information from claimants’ GPs, though a spokesperson could not confirm any details about the pilots the options ‘are still being considered’.
The Workplace Capability Assessments, which the Government uses to decides on whether people are eligible for the ESA, have also been criticised by the BMA, MPs and charities, as 38% of decisions are overturned at the appeal stage. Last year a committee of MPs said the assessments have a ‘disproportionate effect’ on the vulnerable.
Dr Nigel Watson, chief executive of Wessex LMCs said GP feedback into the process was important, but that the forms could take from 15 minutes to an hour and this was having a disproportionate impact on the time GPs could spend with patients.
He said: ‘We are spending more time on admin and paperwork and this is going to increase. With the increasing complexity of long term conditions, and patients working longer, not retiring at 60. Now the forms are more complex. It’s not only that you have more forms to fill in - its more complicated to fill in these forms.’
He added: ‘It adds to the other pressure that GPs are facing. If you spend more times filling in forms then you spend less time looking after patients - the time has to come from somewhere.’
Dr John Canning, chair of the GPC’s professional fees and regulation committee and a GP in Middlesbrough, said the GPC was currently holding talks with the DWP to ensure that GPs are only asked for information which was relevant.
He said: ‘We have been talking to DWP about making sure that when we get asked for information - is it relevant, and is it being asked at the right time?
‘It needs to be an appropriate request; we need to ensure that it achieves what it needs to for the department, as opposed to being a bureaucratic exercise. That balance is not right at the moment.’
He added: ‘The request to respond within a week is not realistic with the work we have to do. Many people work part time.’
It comes after the BMA urged ministers last month to ask GPs to provide factual information for every Work Capability Assessment to enable ‘better-informed decisions’ to be made about their patient’s eligibility for benefits.
The figures also come after the GPs were asked to fill out a new form determining whether patients are eligible for the Government’s new personal independence payment (PIP), a scheme - also run by Atos Healthcare - the GPC warned may ‘harass’ patients with a health condition or disability.
A spokesperson for Atos Healthcare said: ‘These figures should be viewed in the context of increasing numbers of assessments during changes to the welfare system. As agreed with the Department for Work and Pensions, 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.’
A DWP spokesperson said they need the information to make decisions about an individual’s eligibility for the ESA: ‘It is important that we are able to make decisions on an individual’s benefit entitlements with accurate and up to date information, and sometimes this will require medical evidence from a claimant’s GP or other healthcare professional.
‘GPs have been clear that they do not want to be responsible for making decisions on peoples’ benefit entitlement, which is why we have processes in place to request the appropriate information from GPs to enable us to make those decisions.’
How ESA requests have risen
2008 - 6643
2009 - 159,225
2010 - 260,794
2011 - 311,533
2012 - 448,805
2013 (1st January- 31st March) - 136,064
Source: Freedom of Information request