The contract for work capability assessments has been taken over from the notorious Atos by a firm called Maximus. Linda Burnip takes a look its terrible track record in the US
Maximus is the US corporation newly contracted to provide work capability assessments at a cost to taxpayers of £500 million over three-and-a-half years.
It has a very murky past.
Maximus claims that its British operations are different from those in its US homeland and that it has abandoned its previous sharp practice.
But should disabled people hope that Maximus has changed?
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and other disability campaign groups think the answer to that is very definitely No and there’s lots of evidence to support our views.
Until now Maximus has specialised in other streams of outsourced government contracts around the world, most of which have been linked to work programmes.
In addition to Maximus’s takeover of the discredited work capability assessments from Atos, its subsidiary Health Management Ltd has been contracted to harass sick and disabled employees back to work as quickly as possible through the newly introduced Health and Work Service for England and Wales.
After four weeks of being off work sick, employees will now have their fitness to return to work assessed via just a short telephone call. This will affect up to one million employees who become ill every year.
In the US it seems that Maximus is operating a similar scheme which not only denies sickness benefits to people who are entitled to them but also worker compensation and even treatment.
US court files show Maximus has faced and been found guilty of charges from 2000 to 2013, including allegations of fraud, improper spending on expenses and disability, race and gender discrimination, and it has been forced to pay out millions in fines as a result.
In spite of its claim to have changed, as recently as last year US government auditors published a report which found that all but $2 million of $41.4m asked for by the state of Wisconsin — on advice from Maximus — had been “improperly claimed” under Medicaid, the US healthcare insurance programme for those on low incomes.
Maximus was paid a fee based on how much extra revenue the state made.
And earlier this year the state of Illinois terminated a £50m contract with Maximus to help clear a Medicaid backlog for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services after a federal review found that almost 30 per cent of the recommendations were incorrect.
Maximus has also drawn heavy criticism for its performance in delivering a privatised child support enforcement service in Tennessee. The Department for Homeland Security logged 894 statewide complaints against Maximus from July 2009 to September 2012.
It was also criticised in 2010 for allowing many medical workers in a programme for substance-abusing health professionals to continue working because a subcontractor working for Maximus was using the wrong standard to measure them against.
And in the same year, Maximus and one of its subcontractors agreed to pay compensation of $2.5m over the botched update of a criminal justice service IT system in the state of Connecticut.
Not surprisingly Maximus and its management support right-wing politicians and it spent almost $2m on political contributions at the federal level from 1998 to 2013, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics.
While it would be wrong to conclude that that Maximus is directly “buying” contracts for itself, it does make you wonder why it gives so much.
Now, ever greedy for more money, it has taken on the discredited work capability assessment contract in Britain.
Maximus already knows the flaws in the process, yet it is content to comply in implementing a system which is not only brutal but in complete meltdown.
It is inheriting a backlog of 600,000 disabled people waiting for an assessment, often for more than 12 months.
Atos’s record has been truly abysmal. It claims it pulled out of the work capability assessment contract after staff were threatened by “vulnerable” disabled people.
But what really happened to get rid of the toxic Atos?
Regular and repeated protests were held outside Atos offices all around Britain, including its posh London headquarters.
It was hounded off social media, while its corporate identity was repeatedly hijacked despite a string of legal threats.
Other parts of its business were targeted by protesters and the Co-operative Bank was successfully lobbied to end its occupational health contract with Atos.
Everywhere Atos appeared it was hounded by disabled people and claimants determined to expose and disrupt the company — and most of all make its share prices fall.
Atos’s attempt to resurrect its image by sponsoring the Paralympics turned into a PR disaster as large and creative protests exposed this company’s true attitude towards disabled people.
Recruitment events were picketed and working for Atos became a badge of shame among healthcare professionals as the company grew increasingly despised both at home and internationally.
As DPAC has said all along, the entire work capability assessment process must be scrapped.
Nothing has changed with Atos’s flight other than the name of the corporation milking our money for its shareholders.
It is simply more of the same thing — medicals conducted using the same discredited computer software, the same tick-box exercises and many of the same staff who have moved across from Atos with no real change.
The process will continue to contribute to deaths, worsening mental health conditions, worsening physical conditions and increasing poverty and deprivation as hundreds of thousands of disabled people are wrongly assessed, reassessed and deprived of income they are entitled to.
Maximus says it has changed and all will be well when it takes over the contract. There again, we all know that tooth fairies really do exist, don’t we?
Linda Burnip is co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts.