Published: 28/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 5966 Page 13
Patricia Hewitt has been holding meetings with work and pensions secretary David Blunkett to discuss how the NHS could help the government reduce dependency on incapacity benefit.
The health secretary said the biggest challenge was ensuring that the Department for Work and Pensions paid its fair share of the cost of the extra work it wanted the NHS to perform. She said the NHS and GPs had to play a bigger role in helping people stay in work.
Speaking at the Fabian Society last week, Ms Hewitt said she and Mr Blunkett had had 'useful discussions' about how their departments could work together to reduce dependency on incapacity benefit.
'I was horrified to realise that 40 per cent of people claiming invalidity benefit are claiming it because of mental illness, in most cases depression and stress, ' she said.
'There is a whole issue about mental health services, but I think the NHS and GPs haven't really seen it as their role to think: can they do something to help people stay in work or go back to work?' She said one of the best antidotes to depression was getting back to work. 'If the NHS does do more then the savings will be felt in the DWP budgets, although the expenditure will be by the NHS. So we are looking at how we overcome the divide between costs and benefits and how we can collaborate.' At last month's NHS Confederation conference, NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp said mental health was rising up the political agenda because of its impact on incapacity benefit. He said it was likely that more money would be ploughed into talking therapies.
A green paper expected in October will look at ways to reform incapacity benefit and how the NHS can help to reduce dependency on it.
It will examine initiatives such as the 'condition management programmes' available under the Pathways to Work pilots currently available in seven areas.
Under this scheme, funded by Jobcentre Plus, an agency of the DWP, a lead primary care trust in each area commissions a multidisciplinary team of health professionals such as occupational therapists and nurses to advise people how to manage their condition and get back to work.
NHS Confederation spokeswoman Sarah Jones said: 'There are more people on incapacity benefit with mental health problems than there are people on job seekers allowance. But the majority of them want to work.
'The cost of mental illness represents 2 per cent of GDP. Clearly the DWP will make great savings if we get this reform right.' She added: 'The overarching point is to join services up by, for example, putting employment advisers into GP surgeries.' A spokesperson for the Department of Health said an announcement on talking therapies was due in the autumn.
A DWP spokesperson said: 'Partnership is key to helping people on incapacity benefit get back to work.
It is important that people do not write themselves off and that we in government work together to support them.'