Budget reaction – disabled benefits overhaul must recognise the unpredicability of serious illness

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June 22, 2010 by sharonbrennan

I’m sure we’re all paying attention to the budget, listening out for the sections that will directly affect our lives and those of our families. For those ill enough to be in need of benefits, there may well have been a sense of trepidation ahead of what some of the media is calling the ‘Bloodbath Budget’.

So I turn my initial reaction to Disability Living Allowance, a benefit for those with significant disabilities to help them with the extra costs of living and care that their health requires. Chancellor George Osbourne has just announced that by 2013 all those in receipt of DLA will need a medical assessment to determine their continued need for such a benefit.

This sounds positive in some regards. Osbourne claims that the introduction of a medical assessment will make the process of claiming simpler – the current forms to claim disabled benefits are hard to understand and do not show an understanding of how long-term illnesses can affect someone’s life. For example the new Employers Support Allowance, replacing Incapacity Benefit, has many tick boxes about whether you can stand up, raise your arm and walk. It fails to ask a single question about the time it takes every day to do medicine, how much extra rest an ill person needs, and the fact that someone’s health can dramatically vary from day to day, meaning fixed working hours might be untenable. It is such a complicated form it puts the more vulnerable members of society at risk: those who struggle to read; who don’t know how to access the support of charities to help understand the form; who aren’t used to writing lengthy arguments at the end of the form to support their claim.

But a word of warning to a Government that wants to introduce medical assessments to long-term illnesses – living with uncertainty is something disabled people learn to do from a young age, and my guess is that MP’s will soon learn that an illness is very hard to comprehend in a half hour assessment by a doctor that doesn’t know the patient.

For those with degenerative illnesses like CF, diabetes, MS and Parkinson’s there is no clear timeline of how long your health can continue to hold out, and your health varies massively from day to day, let alone month to month. For someone with CF, an over-simple doctor’s assessment in winter rather than summer could result in a different decision to award DLA. Plus continuing to work might literally put some sufferers in an early grave, when being allowed to ‘retire’ could dramatically improve a disabled person’s quality, and could extend it by years.

So MPs, in advance of 2013 please talk in depth to the disabled and medical community first to get a true understanding of long-term illnesses and how they affect day-to-day life and life expectancy. Ensure that the medical assessors have a deep knowledge of the condition they are assessing (perhaps ask doctors from one specialised medical centre to assess patients from another) and keep in mind that everyone should have a right to protect their long-term health.

If an overhaul of the disabled benefits system weeds out the minority of claimants who are unfairly claiming DLA then it can only be a good thing – as long as it doesn’t jeopardise a single claim from someone who truly needs help.

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