I have worked as a GP principal in the NHS since 1986 as a doctor providing primary care services for patients. I have also recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and have had to undergo a mastectomy and sentinel node biopsy.
I now need post-operative chemotherapy, herceptin and radiotherapy to give myself the best possible chance of a long-term cure. This means I have been unable to work since 9 July 2012, and will probably be off for at least the next six months through illness.
Everyone, myself included, has encountered patients who have talked about the difficulties they have when trying to claim sickness benefit, but this would be my first time experiencing the system.
I have always paid my National Insurance contributions throughout my working life, after I qualified in 1982. I wanted to claim employment and support allowance, a non means-tested benefit based on the amount of National Insurance contributions which have been paid to date.
So I went to the Department for Work and Pensionswebsite, naïvely thinking that I would be able to complete an online claim. This is not possible, nor can you obtain a claim form to complete at home and then it post back.
Instead, I was expected to ring a 0845 telephone number at my own expense, be kept on hold for 30 minutes for someone to answer and then complete a 40-minute interview with a person in a call centre who went through a tick-box menu of questions and answers. She then said she would post out the forms to me for signature and verification.
Unfortunately, when I received the forms there were a number of errors, the most important of which was that she had recorded me as a dental practitioner instead of general practitioner and had put down the dentist’s address instead of my surgery address.
I then had to ring again on the 0845 number, wait another 30 minutes for the call to be answered, and then tell her the forms had been wrongly completed. I asked if it were possible to send the forms back with amendments, but this was not possible. Instead, I had to write a covering letter, pointing out the errors and discrepancies and provide the correct information instead. I was also asked to produce my original birth certificate, marriage certificate, medical certificate of sickness and details of any pensions or sickness insurances I paid for privately. These documents then had to be sent recorded delivery to the local DHSS office for processing – which is still on going.
The point I wish to raise is how shocked I was by the bureaucracy of a system that is supposed to be there as a safety net for people who have paid their National Insurance contributions all their lives and who fall sick through no fault of their own.
Fortunately, in my case I am not reliant on receiving any benefits for my family, mortgage or personal living expenses – I have private provision for these – but I am sure that many of my patients are not in such a fortunate position. Furthermore, I do not feel ill or unwell – if I did, I’m sure I would not have had the strength or perseverance to persist with my claim.
I also don’t have a speech impairment or any hearing loss that would make a telephone interview impossible. And I am lucky to be organised enough to know where to find my birth and marriage certificate and so on, all which are essential to the claims process.
But it seems a scandal to me that the system is so complicated and bureaucratic, and is likely to fail the very people who are most in need of help.
I suspect this may be a deliberate Government ploy to reduce the number of benefit claims and therefore the overall cost of welfare. If this is so, then experiences like mine should be publicised nationally and the scheme shown for what it is.
The system would be simpler if claimants were allowed to complete a submission online or by post rather than spending a long time on the phone, and then having their information recorded incorrectly. Fraud checks could still be conducted to ensure the accuracy of the information supplied by the claimant.
I have already sent a letter to my local MP, John Whittingdale, to let him know about my experiences and recommendations, but would welcome the support of any other GPs who feel the way I do about the current system.
Dr Anne Dyson is a GP in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex
Readers might also be interested to watch Panorama’s documentary first aired in July, ‘Disabled or Faking It?’. Click here to watch it on the BBC iPlayer site.