AN Omagh woman in remission from breast cancer has spoken of how she was left humiliated after being called for a medical examination to decide if she was fit for work.
Teresa Bell from the Brookmount Road area was speaking as Omagh District Council seeks a meeting with the Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, to discuss the controversial Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
Councillors are concerned that local people such as Ms Bell are being called for medical examinations and work focus interviews despite suffering from serious illness.
Ms Bell was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago and is currently recovering.
‘THROWING IN THE TOWEL’
She told the Tyrone Herald that the trauma of the medical examinations made her feel like “throwing in the towel”.
“There is no reason for me to have to go through this because they have numerous letters from my GP outlining my medical circumstances and why I’m not fit for work,” she said.
“I just feel like throwing in the towel because I’ve just had enough of the whole thing. I developed cancer and then depression and anxiety from not knowing if I would recover.
“The worry of possibly having to go through another medical is increasing the stress in my life. I’m in remission from cancer and all this anxiety isn’t helping.
“When the examinations are carried out there’s not even water for people to drink. If you want to go to the toilet, then you have to ask. It’s humiliating to say the least.”
There are also concerns about the manner in which the medical examinations are carried out by Atos Healthcare, the firm contracted to conduct so-called work capability assessments (WCA).
In February of last year Strabane woman Cecilia Burns launched a campaign to overturn a decision to cut her benefits after government officials decided she was fit for work even though she suffered from cancer.
Ms Burns had her Employment Support Allowance reduced by £30 a week even though she was still undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The case sparked outrage and Ms Burns eventually had her benefits reinstated. However, she died just a few weeks later.
‘MUST BE ADDRESSED’
Omagh Independent councillor, Johnny McLaughlin, says the issue of work capability assessments must be addressed by the Stormont Assembly.
“People like Teresa are receiving correspondence to attend these medical examinations with the ESA. Both Teresa and others who have cancer, MS, Parkinsons or Huntingtons are being treated barbarically by the Employment Support Allowance.
“Registered nurses are carrying out the majority of these examinations and their word is being taken over local GPs who know the full medical history of their patients.
“The reasons why GP letters are not being sought is because the department is not willing to pay the resulting fee.”
‘DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN’
At last Tuesday night’s meeting of Omagh District Council, Sinn Feín’s Martin McColgan warned that the current situation is a “disaster waiting to happen.”
SDLP councillor and Omagh GP, Josephine Deehan, said the loss of dignity as a result of the medical examinations was “disgraceful.”
She added that people are suffering and there was outrage among many at concerns that the assessments were not fair.