We need to weed out bogus disability claims for the people who really need it

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By Aaron McKenna in The Journal, 26 March 2016

Since 2006, over 60,000 people have been removed from the workforce to be classified as disabled. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of people leaving the workforce to be classed as disabled rose by 2,000.

Let’s have a little think about that for a minute. Roughly speaking, we went from having 500 people a year leaving the workforce to classify as disabled to having 7,500 a year doing the same.

Someone at the HSE or the Health and Safety Authority or the Office of Emergency Planning ought to get on that, because a population larger than that of Waterford has been taken out since 2006 for some reason. Something, something happened after 2006 that wasn’t happening in the years before to 2002. What was it again…?

Oh, yes. Economic times got harder, working got harder, and staying on the dole perpetually was a phenomenon phased out by the Troika when they got here and wondered why we had let over 30,000 people claim unemployment benefits indefinitely at a time of full employment.

Disabilities of all kinds are real and they can strike any of us at any time in our lives. Some of these ailments are physical and clearly manifest themselves for all to see.

Other disabilities are not so easy to see but are equally as real and debilitating. There is also a case for gradually rising levels of disability as we recognise more ailments as genuine barriers to work. It is right and proper that we provide for these people as part of our social safety net.

The trouble with disability payments is that they are also a soft touch way for scroungers to escape the milieu of work.

In 2003, the Department of Social Protection ran a pilot program on disability payment claimants reporting lower back pain.

They took in 1,362 claimants for medical assessment. 1,200 of the claims – 88% – were terminated following the doctors reports. The Department called another 2,775 claimants in and, again, found that only 10% of the claims were eligible.

At today’s rate of payments, that’s €685,000 per week worth of claims they stopped. That’d fund a quite few specialists to help the people with real chronic back pain.

People who make bogus disability claims are stealing directly from the people who have genuine claims. We hear often that payments for carers are too low. Funding for disability services is inadequate. Our mental health services are often neglected or even directly raided for funds “earmarked” by the Department of Health when it has shortfalls.

The annual cost of disability, illness and carer related payments has increased from €2 billion per year in 2005 to €3.4 billion a year in 2014, the latest for which Department of Social Protection statistics have been published. The number of people on Disability Allowance alone has increased by 33,000 since the recession began.

Quite coincidentally, 33,000 is nearly the same number of people who were classed as being long term unemployed at the height of the boom. In 2006, there were 31,100 people in the workforce who were claiming dole for more than a year, at a time when so many jobs were available that we had the largest net inflow of people into the country at any time in our history.

When the Troika arrived they looked at our system of allowing people to claim indefinitely, rightly said it was crazy and forced us to make it more difficult to sit on your backside without challenge. Admittedly, they introduced these measures at a time when it was quite difficult to get a job; but those some 31,000 people from 2006 were happily claiming their scratch and were giving no indication they’d change if we returned to full employment again.

The reason we had allowed so many people to stay on the dole indefinitely is the same reason why the Department of Social Protection doesn’t aggressively shake the disability tree to see how many bogus claims fall out each year: You’d have the bleeding hearts out cribbing and moaning no end, your officials would inevitably make mistakes and land you on Joe Duffy, and you risk turning the work shy into political activists and a headache.

So it is that we allow the fiction to go on that seeing a rise of 7,500 listing as disabled per year after a period of increasing by 500 per year is perfectly normal. We take hundreds of millions of euro, if not billions of euro, every year from individuals who suffer some of the worst and most persistent ailments imaginable; and we hand it to work shy fraudsters.

Politicians hate to annoy anyone. It’s not difficult to see why when so many of them scraped into their seats by very tight margins in the last election.

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If the department could survey just one group of claimants and weed out 90% as bogus, how much money is being robbed from those who need it?

The truly physically disabled. Those genuinely fighting battles in their heads. People who actually end up unable to work through no fault of their own. These people deserve better than to be lumped in with a category of people best classed as “too awkward to bother dealing with” by officials.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also a founder member of the Hibernia Forum. You can follow him at @aaronmckenna

 

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