Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Getting rich on disability denial

Debbie Jolly reports on US insurance giant Unum, whose ‘biopsychosocial model’ is being used to justify the devastating cuts in disability benefits

February 19, 2013
4 min read

When the Tory work and pensions undersecretary Lord David Freud set out his vision of welfare reform for disabled people he used a number of references to back up his plans. No fewer than 170 of these references came from a group of academics based at or connected to Cardiff University’s Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research.

This centre, originally led by the ex‑chief medical officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, Sir Mansel Alyward, was funded by the US-based insurance giant Unum to the tune of £1.6 million from 2004 to 2009. The objective was to add academic credibility to the ‘biopsychosocial model’ that has underpinned disability benefits reform since the early 1990s – a model used as part of the government’s disability benefits crackdown by the private company Atos in identifying who is deemed to be ‘fit for work’ and hence ineligible for disability support.

So what is the biopsychosocial model? In this context, its key postulate is that an emphasis on medical causes and effects has failed to provide an adequate basis for disability benefits policy, and therefore much greater emphasis should be placed on the psychological attitudes and beliefs of individuals. It posits that disability – and the ability to work in particular – is not just a medically definable, physical matter but one that has a social and psychological dimension too. And it is used to underpin the assertion that to a very large extent the growth in the cost of disability benefits must surely be the result of people faking those disabilities.

A whole set of workshops run by Unum with such charming titles as ‘Malingering and illness deception’ should leave us in no doubt about where this approach is coming from. A glance at popular media would appear to substantiate such a view. However, the headline figures of those considered ‘fit for work’ by Atos always miss the successful appeals at tribunal, which significantly reduce those figures (and incidentally cost the taxpayer £50-80 million per year). Who is gaining from this system?

Unum’s second vice-president John LoCascio was brought into UK government circles as early as 1992 to ‘manage’ incapacity benefit claims. He was also responsible for bringing in ‘health assessors’ and training them by Unum criteria in biopsychosocial views of individual capacity. Back in the US this approach led to the company (which currently provides disability insurance for 25 million workers, half the US market) systematically refusing to pay out on huge numbers of insurance claims. One of its working practices that received widespread negative attention involved rewarding employees with ‘hungry vulture awards’ for their success in closing claims.

Unum’s behaviour resulted in it being accused of being ‘an outlaw company – it is a company that for years has operated in an illegal fashion’ by California insurance commissioner John Garamendi in 2005, when it was charged with more than 25 violations of state law and fined $8 million. These charges followed a financial and regulatory settlement in the previous year with 48 US states following investigations of Unum’s alleged abuses.

Nevertheless this same basic approach was to prove useful in helping with the UK’s welfare reform and in overriding the basis of medical opinion as the deciding factor on a whole set of conditions. And the more the government bought into disability denial with its contracted private companies such as Atos and supporting academics, the more Unum stood to benefit from increased market returns on its insurance business as disabled people saw their minimal welfare support diminishing.

The company was quick to seize its opportunities. As early as 1997, with the roll out of the all work test to assess fitness for work for benefit purposes, in which John LoCascio had played a major part, Unum launched an expensive advertising campaign. One ad ran: ‘April 13, unlucky for some. Because tomorrow the new rules on state incapacity benefit announced in the 1993 autumn budget come into effect. Which means that if you fall ill and have to rely on state incapacity benefit, you could be in serious trouble.’

Unlucky for some, lucky for Unum.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright