‘Private Eye’ piece on Unum, the American insurance company, and income protection cover, 11 November 2011

From ‘Private Eye’, In the Back section, 11 November 2011

Tricky questions are again being asked about the profits American insurance giant Unum stands to make from its massive media push on income protection cover, promoted as the answer to the latest tough welfare reforms.

Pulling stunts like persuading six bloggers to live for a week on the current average benefit of £95 and then write about it, Jack McGarry, chief executive at Unum UK (pictured), earlier this year warned: “The government’s welfare reform bill will seek to tighten the gateway to benefits for those people unable to work due to sickness or injury. Each year up to 1m people in the UK become disabled and the reforms mean that working people will be able to rely less on state benefits to maintain the standard of living they were used to prior to their illness.”
Well, Unum should know. Behind the scenes it has been helping Tory and Labour governments slash the benefits of disabled and sick people for years – going right back to Peter Lilley’s social security “Incapacity for Work” reforms of 1994. Lilley hired John Le Cascio, then vice-president of Unum, to advise on “claims management”. Le Cascio also sat on the “medical evaluation group”, which – according to Professor Jonathan Rutherford in the academic journal Soundings – was set up to design and enforce more stringent medical tests.

At the same time, the UK wing of Unum was launching what it boasted was “a concerted effort to harness the potential” from predicted cuts in benefits, urging people to protect themselves with a “long-term disability policy from Unum”.

Eye asked first
The Eye first questioned Unum about the possibility of a serious conflict of interest back in 1995. Dr Le Cascio said he didn’t “feel that way” and wouldn’t have taken the government job if he thought there was a conflict. That, of course, was ten years before Unum was found guilty in the US of “systematically violating” insurance regulations and fraudulently denying or “low-balling” claims using phony medical reports, misrepresentation and biased investigations (see Ad Nauseam, last Eye).

Fast-forward 16 years, and plus ça change. Unum’s tarnished reputation has done nothing to diminish its influence here and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is still denying there’s anything amiss about Unum’s more recent meddling. In a lengthy reply last month to Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg’s chief adviser, the DWP neatly skirted questions about whether Unum was advising on welfare reform and about its unlawful activities in the US.

Yet Unum executives sat on both the mental health and physical function “technical working groups” set up under the Labour government in 2006, which reviewed and finally came up with the new, stricter “work compatibility assessments”, introduced for new claimants in 2008. In fact Unum and Atos, the huge French outsourcing company that holds the government’s multimillion contract to conduct the widely criticised assessments on behalf of the DWP (see In the Back, last Eye), were the only for-profit companies represented on the groups. Unum chief executive McGarry has now been appointed to the expert panel reviewing the sickness absence from work system announced by the government in February.

Lobby styles
Prof Rutherford wrote that Unum had also been “building its influence” in a variety of ways over a number of years. He said that in 2001 Le Cascio was a key player at a ground-breaking conference at Woodstock near Oxford, titled “Malingering and Illness Deception”. Malcolm Wicks, Labour work minister at the time, and Mansel Aylward, then chief medical officer at the DWP, were among the 39 delegates.

In the same year, Unum launched a public private partnership to act as a pressure group to extend influence in policymaking. And in 2004 it opened the £1.6m UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University. (The centre has since been renamed and Unum says it no longer provides any funding – no doubt because of claims that academic integrity could be called into question by its influence.)

Unum has been lobbying, sitting on expert groups and hosting meetings at party conferences of all colours ever since. And lo and behold, in May this year, Unum’s then medical officer Prof Michael O’Donnell jumped ship to become chief medical officer at Atos. He barely had time to catch his breath before giving evidence to the Commons committee looking at the welfare reform bill.

But Unum is once again denying any conflict of interest “since our current work with the DWP and our marketing campaign are different.” It said its current consultation work is about helping people return to work and its advertising campaign was educational and does not support tightening benefit changes.

Meanwhile disability activists who have fallen foul and been forced to appeal cuts in DWP benefits based on flawed Atos assessments, and campaigning groups like Black Triangle, think the whole thing stinks and are urging MPs to investigate.