The Government has announced the company that will run a new national service aimed at cutting long-term sickness absence by offering employees health assessments and return-to-work plans.
The Health and Work Service (HWS) in England and Wales will be delivered by occupational health (OH) provider Health Management, which is owned by the multinational government service provider MAXIMUS.
Employees off sick for four weeks or more will be referred to the HWS for an OH assessment, normally by their GPs. The HWS will then share a return-to-work plan with the employer and GP.
The HWS will also offer general health and work advice to GPs, employers and employees by telephone and via a website.
The service will be launched in late 2014 in a phased roll-out to be completed by the end of May 2015.
The Government predicts that the HWS will cut sick pay costs to business by £80 million to £165 million a year, as well as increase economic output by up to £900 million a year.
Minister for welfare reform Lord Freud said: “Providing support where it’s needed most will help to reduce the length of time employees take off sick which, in turn, will cut sick pay costs, improve economic output and reduce the chances of people falling out of work and having to claim benefits. All contributing to the Government’s long-term economic plan.”
The HWS follows recommendations made in an independent sickness absence review in 2011. The Government has also introduced a tax exemption of up to £500 a year per employee on payments for medical treatments recommended by the HWS or in-house OH services.
The HWS will provide a case manager to support each employee through the service’s assessment and identify steps to take to get them back to work.
This month, manufacturing organisation the EEF raised concerns about the awareness and capacity of GPs to use the service, and called on the Government to ring-fence around £6 million of the £170 million budget to train all 40,000 UK GPs in OH.
Doctors are worried about the limited scope of the service and believe there is some confusion about which employers it is targeting. Doctors’ body the British Medical Association voted in its conference in June 2014 for a motion stating that it was “misleading” to employers to say that the HWS will provide “occupational health” advice and support.
Dr Susan Robson said: “By describing the Health and Work Service as providing occupational health advice these proposals could therefore inadvertently damage the current provision of comprehensive services and potentially risk the health and safety of the working population.”
However, healthcare provider AXA PPP’s director of health consulting, Elliott Hurst, said that the service would benefit employers without an existing OH provision.
Hurst said: “The Government’s decision to align its fiscal policy with its employment strategy is a welcome response to a longstanding business need for many employers who do not have regular access to, or a need for, occupational health and absence management support.”
In Scotland, the HWS will be delivered by the Scottish Government on behalf of the UK Government.