Workers to get single sick cert after benefit scheme overhaul

Department to issue guidelines to GPs on how long sick certs should typically last

About 359,000 people are currently in receipt of illness, disability or caring payments. Photograph: Thinkstock

About 359,000 people are currently in receipt of illness, disability or caring payments. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

A planned overhaul of the €600 million sickness benefit scheme will see workers issued with a single certificate to cover the entire expected period of an illness.

And guidelines will be issued to GPs advising them how long a sick cert should last depending on the specific illness.

At present, a person claiming illness benefit for longer than a week must provide a new sick cert for each additional week of illness.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty has said the new system will ensure the correct level of payment is given “for the appropriate period of time”.

“Given the nature and volume of illness benefit claims received by my department, I am very much open to improving the claims process in any way which benefits recipients while ensuring the appropriate payment goes to the appropriate person for the appropriate period of time. Ultimately, we should aim to have a system that works efficiently and as simply as possible.”

Under the new process, a person will receive a single sick cert for a complete period of an illness based on the expected duration of recovery from the illness.

“This process would remove the need for ongoing weekly certification where an illness lasts longer than a week. The period of closed certification would be based on the GP’s assessment of their patient and the department’s closed certification guidelines,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection said.

“The guidelines provide evidence-based, expected durations of recovery for common health conditions and common surgical procedures, categorised according to the international standard ICD10 classification of illnesses.”

Clinical judgment

The department has said the “clinical judgment” of the GP would take precedence.

“It is important to state that the department’s guidelines are not prescriptive. There will, undoubtedly, be individual variations in recovery times, some patients recovering and returning to work earlier than expected, others later. Ultimately, the clinical judgment of the treating GP or specialist will be paramount.

“The new certification process should provide patients with a clear expectation of duration of recovery and also be a more efficient process for the GP, the customer and the department.”

The number of people claiming these payments and the costs relating to them have soared in recent years

Up to 55,000 people claim illness benefit at any one time countrywide. The scheme costs the Government €600 million every year and the department receives about 1,000 illness benefit claims each working day.

Concerns about the cost of the scheme have been raised as far back as 2012 by the former minister for protection Joan Burton.

She said costs relating to illness benefit, disability allowance and invalidity pension were “enormous”.

“The number of people claiming these payments and the costs relating to them have soared in recent years,” she said, pointing towards a 44 per cent increase from some 170,000 to some 247,000 between 2001 and 2010.

About 359,000 people are currently in receipt of illness, disability or caring payments.

Ms Burton said that in previous consultations with employers, an issue which has been raised was the “perception among employers, which I share, that there were serious issues about the way in which some medical practitioners issued sick notes” for the scheme.

Workers in the Department of Social Protection itself have taken about 200,000 illness benefit claims every year over the last three years.

The top most common medical conditions certified related to musculoskeletal issues, low back pain, stress, anxiety and post-operative conditions.

About 60 per cent of claims, 120,000, resulted in a return to work within six weeks with a further 12 per cent, or about 23,000, returned to work within seven to 14 weeks.

The average worker at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was out for 13 days due to illness, figures for 2017 show.

This compares with an average of under nine days across the public service. The total cost of sick leave across the public service is estimated at €341.5 million for 2017.