The Government’s Fit for Work website and telephone advice line was formally launched last December.
The physical assessment side of the service is running in pilot form in parts of the country and it is due to be gradually rolled out this year. NHS occupational health (OH) units are expected to provide many of the face-to-face appointments under an agreement between Health Management and Syngentis, the not-for-profit social enterprise spun out of NHS Plus.
The Government’s new £500 tax break on medical treatments to help an employee return to work also came into effect from January.
The DWP has issued guidance explaining to employers how the new service is expected to operate.
It reiterates that the service will be a combination of free health and work advice via a website or telephone, alongside a free occupational health assessment for employees off sick, or expected to be off sick, for four weeks or more.
The description of the service in this way has proved a bone of contention within the profession, with Dr Paul Nicholson, chair of the British Medical Association’s occupational medicine committee, last summer urging the Government to stop using the “misleading” term “occupational health advice and support” in relation to the service. Health Management itself has emphasised that, in its view, it is providing a “focused return to work” service rather than occupational health.
The guidance, despite stating that the service will provide an OH assessment, concedes that one of the key differences between it and conventional OH provision is that it will be providing “sickness absence assessment” as opposed to “employer-driven and agreed” OH services. It also emphasised the intention of Fit for Work is that it should complement, not replace, existing OH.
“While Fit for Work will deliver some aspects of an occupational health service, it will not deliver a fully comprehensive service. Fit for Work will fill the gap in support where that currently exists, especially for smaller employers,” it said.
“When deemed appropriate by a case manager and the employee’s consent is given, employer occupational health services will be consulted during the formation of the return-to-work plan and when discussing the recommendations within the finalised plan,” it added.
The guidance highlights that it is expected employees will predominantly be referred into the service by GPs, but employers will also be able to make a referral. Employees who have still not returned to work after three months from the point of referral will be discharged from the programme, the guidance also revealed.
Former DWP medical adviser offers consultancy advice to Fit for Work provider
Separately, former DWP chief medical adviser Bill Gunnyeon has been taken on by Health Management’s US owner Maximus to provide consultancy advice, a move that has been questioned in the media. Alongside the Fit for Work contract, Maximus also won the contract to take over delivery of the controversial Work Capability Assessments (WCA) from Atos Healthcare.
As part of his brief, Gunnyeon had overall responsibility for the WCA and was closely involved in the development of Fit for Work.
There is no suggestion of a breach of the Government’s business appointment rules for civil servants. But the move has nevertheless been questioned by Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people. She told Disability News Service: “I would expect that [Gunnyeon] and Maximus would want to be very, very cautious about anything that might give rise to concern among disabled people that his position had been compromised.”
However, both Maximus and the DWP stressed to DNS that there was no conflict of interest in Gunnyeon taking on consultancy work for Maximus.