Spinning the sickness benefit

The National Party released an 11-page backgrounder to support its policy announcement last Monday that it would be forcing sickness and invalid’s beneficiaries to look for work. That backgrounder contained the following statement:

“Figure 1 shows that the number of people receiving the UB has declined dramatically over the past decade. At the same time, there has been a steady rise in the number of people getting the [sickness (SB)] and, especially, the [invalids benefit (IB)].”

“Figure 1” was this graph of trends in benefit numbers, published by the Ministry of Social Development:

As Jafapete points out, the implication that there has been a migration from unemployment benefit to sickness and invalid’s benefit is absolute rubbish. The sickness benefit numbers have, in fact, increased at about the same rate as the population has increased over the 12 years reported on by the Ministry of Social Development. As for the invalid’s benefit, the qualification is that a “person is permanently and severely restricted in his or her capacity for work…” Given that permanent incapacity is required to qualify, it would not be expected that many people would be leaving the invalid’s benefit, other than through death or qualification for NZ Superannuation. So of course the statistics will show an increase in numbers on invalid’s benefit that is greater than the population increase over the period surveyed.

So what the Nats are spinning as some huge problem of people migrating from unemployment benefit to sickness and invalid’s benefits and malingering on them – a problem so severe it needs to be addressed by forcing sickness and invalid’s beneficiaries to look for work – is actually just the trend that would be expected.

David Farrar then gets in on the spin over at Key wee-blog, quoting MacDoctor (Dr Jim McVeagh):

The only way this can stop is if you compel sickness beneficiaries to have an annual (or six monthly) medical with an independent doctor, preferably a specialist. This is not only good politics, it is actually good medicine, as specialist review of long-term illness is good clinical practice. Frankly, I don’t see this as being unpopular with sickness beneficiaries, apart from the ones milking the system. The majority of them would love to get better and go back to work, if they could.

Interestingly, Farrar omits to quote this from MacDoctor’s post:

Judith Collins has repeatedly claimed that people are moving off unemployment benefits onto sickness benefits, partially accounting for the drop in unemployment beneficiaries. In an excellent post today, Jafapete demonstrates that this does not appear to be happening. Sickness benefit statistics are doing what you would expect them to do – rise with the increase in population. I’m sure he is correct. I have never bought in to Judith’s argument.

So Farrar is selectively quoting to attempt to justify the Nats’ policy, while omitting the part of the post he’s quoting from that challenges its underlying assumption.

Note that National’s policy does not suggest the review is by a specialist, which MacDoctor recommends. It will be by a GP (because that is all they will be able to afford from the $1.2m costing). The danger is that Work and Income will favour “tame” GPs, who will tend to assess beneficiaries as fit for work when there is some doubt in order to be confident of ongoing referrals.

I would support this policy if the independent assessments were done by specialists who had a greater understanding of the medical condition of the beneficiary, and who, because of their seniority (and therefore income) were less likely to be corrupted by the prospect of easy bucks from Work and Income referrals. And because, as MacDoctor says, a specialist review of long-term illness is good clinical practice. National’s policy, however, will not achieve these objectives. It is purely fiscally motivated – to get sickness benefit numbers down.

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5 thoughts on “Spinning the sickness benefit

  1. WINZ already have a system of designated doctors for the Invalid’s Benefit. It’s largely arbitrary – for illnesses that rely on trusting the patient’s account rather than lab tests (depression, addiction, M.E., arthritis etc) then you either get a sympathetic assessment or you don’t depending on the doctor and how the patient presents on the day. Yes some doctors are anti-beneficiary but not all are in the pocket of WINZ.

    Contrary to DF’s opinion, going to a WINZ designated doctor isn’t popular amongst sick people because it’s incredibly stressful to have your income dependant on someone you’ve never met before who may or may not have the skills to understand why you are on a benefit in the first place.

    btw, the criteria for IB isn’t permanent, it’s long term or permanent. Sometimes people do get off IB, which is why WINZ already have a policy of helping some IB people to get work ready.

  2. Yes, weka, you are technically correct re invalid’s benefit.

    To quote the eligibility criteria re permanence more fully:

    (1) …The person is permanently and severely restricted in his or her capacity for work because of sickness, or because of injury or disability from accident or congenital defect.
    (2) A person is permanently restricted in his or her capacity for work if the chief executive is satisfied that—
    (a) The restricting sickness, injury, or disability is expected to continue for at least the period set out in regulations made under this Act for the purposes of this section; or
    (b) The person is not expected to live for the period set out in those regulations, because the person’s sickness, injury, or disability is terminal.

    The regulations then state:

    For the purposes of section 40(2)(a) of the Social Security Act 1964, the minimum period of time for which a person’s restricting sickness, injury, or disability must be expected to continue is 2 years

    So, yes, there are some people who do eventually come off invalid’s benefit into work, and there is an excellent Training Incentive Allowance programme to assist them that Work and Income could well utilise more.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that far fewer people will always come off over any period of time than go on it, because of the permanent or long-term incapacity qualification. And it doesn’t change the fact that the National Party are trying to spin this inevitability to create a perception that there are a large number of people malingering on it.

  3. And it doesn’t change the fact that the National Party are trying to spin this inevitability to create a perception that there are a large number of people malingering on it.

    Yes, in complete agreement. They’re beneficiary bashing all over the place.

    While I do know quite a few people who have gotten off IB because their health improved, I have no idea what percentage do in general. I’m still unclear if it’s useful to characterise IB as a permanent benefit. Even if the number getting off is 20 or 30% that is still a significant number.

  4. I don’t know either weka. If Sue Bradford picks this up she might like to ask the Minister some questions about it. I still woulnd’t think it is anywhere near as high as you suggest though.

  5. It is better that the sb or ib is assessed by their own GP as they are in a better position to understand their patients condition.In my mind a specialist and an independent GP will not necessarily make a proper and fair judgement on each and every case.Thanks.

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