The government contractor Atos Healthcare is apparently refusing to review what could be hundreds of disability assessments, after a nurse was sacked for carrying out “fitness for work” tests while drunk.
Heather Margaret Macbean performed work capability assessments (WCAs) for Atos for at least five months – and probably much longer – and is also believed to have carried out assessments for disability living allowance and DVLA (the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency).
But even though she was sacked by Atos on 8 July, and there is evidence that she was drunk at work on at least one occasion in both January and April this year, the company is so far apparently refusing to review all of her WCAs.
Macbean is likely to have carried out hundreds of assessments of disabled people for Atos across the Manchester and Preston areas.
The investigating committee of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) heard on 31 July that Atos colleagues were able to smell “strong mints and alcohol” on Macbean when she turned up for work on 27 June.
The “quality of her work deteriorated” during the day, and in the afternoon her colleagues reported that she was “slurring her words and her eyes were glazed”.
Two of her managers concluded that a bottle she had been drinking from contained wine mixed with water. She was suspended, and even attempted to drive home, and was sacked on 8 July for gross misconduct.
The NMC panel concluded that she posed a “high risk of repetition and a serious risk and danger to the public” if she continued to work as a nurse, and so ordered an 18-month interim suspension order while the council carried out a “full and proper investigation”.
Disabled benefit claimants have now come forward to tell Disability News Service of their concerns that Macbean could have been drunk while she was carrying out their assessments.
Edward Brown, from Blackburn, said Macbean displayed signs of being drunk when she was assessing him for eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) at Atos’s Preston assessment centre on 8 January this year.
He said: “My wife told me later that she had noticed that her eyes were glazed and we both noticed a strong smell of mints.”
As a result of Macbean’s assessment, Brown was found fit for work, and it was only after he appealed – with the help of a supportive letter from his GP – that he was placed in the support group, for those ESA claimants with the highest barriers to work.
Brown said Macbean had omitted everything he had told her during the assessment about the impact of his uncontrollable anger on his day-to-day life.
He said: “When I got a copy of the report, I found out how much of what I told her was missing. It got me extremely angry. The doctor put me on Diazepam and extra anti-depressants because of this.”
His mental health deteriorated so much following the assessment that he received a police caution after an incident with another shopper in a supermarket.
Brown said he believed he had been the victim of “serious medical negligence”, and added: “If they say I have to go for another face-to-face assessment, I am not sure I will be able to go, not after my experience last time.”
He added: “I think they should review all of the assessments that she did. I am just concerned that [people's] benefits might have been stopped or seriously affected. We don’t know how many assessments she carried out under the influence of alcohol.”
Another claimant, Chris Hodson, was assessed by Macbean in April and was also found “fit for work”. He is now appealing.
Hodson, who has chronic pain and depression, and previously claimed incapacity benefit, said he noticed that Macbean was behaving strangely during his assessment.
He said: “When I went into the room it was very minty-smelling. She didn’t seem like she was concentrating. She had a blank expression on her face and when I was replying there was no eye contact.”
Hodson said the assessment report written by Macbean was full of inaccuracies.
He said: “I’m angry. It makes me feel like they are playing with people’s lives.”
He and his partner, who have two children, are now falling into serious debt because he has been placed on a lower ESA rate while he appeals.
His partner, Michelle Brammer, said: “We are way below the poverty line and have used up the two hardship payments that we can get through our council as we use it for food which has run out now.”
An Atos spokeswoman said: “We don’t comment on HR [human resources] issues or on individuals. When any HR issue arises we act very swiftly to take the appropriate action.
“There are rigorous checks within the system, with both a rolling and random audit process for our doctors, nurses and physiotherapists.
“We do not make the decision on benefit entitlement and will re-do any assessment that is sent back to us by the decision-makers at DWP before a decision on benefit has been reached.”
When asked if Atos would review all of Macbean’s assessments in the light of her sacking, the spokeswoman said her work would already have been audited as part of normal procedures.
She said: “People dislike the company and the people who work for us. That might skew their judgment on people.
“You are missing what has been happening over the last two or three years. Vilifying every doctor or nurse who works for Atos is unhelpful to them and the people who come in and see them.
“We know she was drunk on one occasion at work, for which she was fired, and that is all I am going to say.”
Asked again if she was going to say whether Atos would review all of Macbean’s assessments, she said: “I am not.”
A DWP spokesman said: “It’s not appropriate for us to comment on an individual case – management of individual HCPs [healthcare professionals] is the responsibility of our provider, Atos.
“However, as part of the monitoring of HCP performance, all Atos HCPs are subject to audit of their work and if and when concerns emerge these will be flagged and dealt with as appropriate.
“People already have the right to provide more medical information and ask for a reconsideration, or to appeal to an independent tribunal. Anyone placed in the work-related activity group will have a date set for their claim to be reviewed.”
An NMC spokeswoman said Macbean was still suspended and that the first review of her case would take place early next year.
21 November 2013