MPs have called on the Government to scrap the ESA65B letter that misled GPs into not issuing fit notes to patients.
Last week it emerged that patients were at risk of homelessness after the Department of Work and Pensions made changes to the ESA65B letter, removing the section advising GPs to issue fit notes.
This meant some GPs were not issuing fit notes to patients who were still entitled to one – for example if they were appealing a decision or if their condition worsened – which could result in patients getting into rent arrears, relying on foodbanks, or even ending up homeless.
Shadow minister for work and pensions Marsha de Cordova wrote to the work and pensions minister Amber Rudd urging the government to scrap the letter, which is automatically sent to GPs when their patients are deemed fit to work, and replace them with clearer information on the circumstances in which fit notes can be issued by GPs.
Ms de Cordova said the reports were ‘shocking’ and that patients were being ‘left close to destitution.’
She said: ‘Shocking reports have emerged today that ill and disabled people are being left without vital social security, as the DWP has sent misleading letters to GPs advising them that they no longer need to provide fit for work notes to patients who are refused employment and support allowance.’
She added: ‘Patients need those notes to access the assessment rate of ESA if they are appealing the decision, and this obviously results in many being left close to destitution and in rent arrears.
‘Will the secretary of state commit today to reword these letters and immediately prevent any further harm to any ill and disabled people?’
Ms Rudd responded by saying the letters ‘are not intended to dissuade [GPs] from issuing fit notes.’
She said: ‘These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes. To claim otherwise is inaccurate.’
In a later Commons debate, Labour MP for High Peak, Ruth George, condemned the ESA65B letter, stating one of her constituents died after being ‘forced back to work’.
She said: ‘Will the minister for women and equalities join me in condemning the wording of letter ESA65B from the DWP—the letter asks general practitioners to cease issuing fit notes to people with disabilities awaiting an appeal for employment and support allowance—and help ensure that such blatant discrimination against disabled people, which resulted in the death of my constituent who was forced back to work against his doctor’s advice, will cease immediately?’
The women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt answered by saying: ‘It is critical that welfare and healthcare work absolutely together if we are to support people.
‘If the hon. Lady would like to share the details with me, I will certainly get a response from the DWP.’
The DWP has previously come under fire for its development of a new IT system which would allow them to access patient data to determine benefits assessments.
Last year, a survey by our sister publication Pulse, where this article was first published, revealed that although more fit notes were being issued, GPs’ advice was being ignored by employers.
In October last year, a petition was launched calling for professions other than GPs to be able to sign fit notes, saving GP time.
A version of this story was originally published on our sister publication Pulse.