Civil servants get ‘abusive’ calls over delayed illness benefit payments

Social protection staff warn of industrial action as some doctors refuse to use new forms

Civil servants have warned they could take industrial action as a result of “aggressive and abusive” calls they are receiving due to delays in the payment of illness benefit.

The delays in processing the payments stem from a dispute between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and general practitioners (GPs) over the recent introduction of new illness certification forms.

Some GPs are refusing to use the new forms and the department said this was leading to “entirely avoidable and unnecessary” delays to payments.

However, staff in the department maintain they are being caught in the middle of the dispute.

Fórsa, which represents the staff concerned, said applicants for illness benefit were facing long delays when they contacted the department looking for information. It said this was “due to the unusually high volume of calls to the illness benefit section caused by the dispute”. The union said some of those phoning in over illness benefit payments were having to wait up to 90 minutes to have their calls answered.

It said the department had failed to properly communicate the current difficulties to its service users. Despite management commitments to publish newspaper adverts, provide training to staff and update the phone messaging system, nothing has been delivered, it said.

Fórsa official Des Fagan said the frustration of applicants was understandable but had "unfortunately...led to our members being subject to aggressive and abusive calls.

“The department needs to act urgently. Fórsa has advised management at the department that if the current situation continues we will exercise the option of a ballot for industrial action in order to protect our members,” he said.

Online certification

Talks between the department and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO ) on the issue are due to resume on Wednesday.

The department said it was ultimately moving to an online GP certification system for illness and injury benefits which was already in place for opticians, dentists and audiologists, who certify patients for treatment benefits.

“The new illness benefit certificates and claim forms are now scannable by the department which dramatically reduces manual form processing. The department is clear that the redesign of these forms does not create any additional work for GPs,” it said.

The department said it would not be in a position indefinitely to accept the old forms . It said it paid GPs approximately €18million a year in respect of certifications for illness and injury schemes.

The IMO said there was an agreement with the department that GPs could either continue to use the existing form or move to the new form pending the outcome of negotiations.

It said it did not accept that there was “any validity” to the claim that GPs were responsible for delay in payments to patients and that it was “disrespectful” to suggest otherwise.

The National Association of General Practitioners said the department was seeking “to bully GPs into changing work practice without mediation or negotiation”.