A disabled woman died from a “massive heart attack” after she was repeatedly refused vital financial support following assessments carried out by a private benefits firm, it has been reported.
Sandra Burns, from Luton, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs at her home on April 16, surrounded by letters from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and over-due utility bills, having suffered what is believed to be a huge heart attack.
Brother Ian told Luton Today: “She was found dead at the foot of her stairs, apparently of a massive heart attack.
“She was surrounded by letters informing her that the gas, electricity, water, telephone and television were all in danger of being cut off.”
“This debt and anxiety lay all around her on the floor”, he said.
The 57-year-old, who had worked in retail for 30 years before severe back pain caused by five fused vertebrae in her spine forced her to give up working, had failed a number of benefit assessments over a five year period but successfully challenged each decision on appeal.
The disability assessments were carried out by private firm Atos, on behalf of the DWP, who withdrew from a contract to carry out assessments for Employment and Support Allowance following a string of failures and mounting criticism.
Each time she failed an assessment, Ms Burns found herself looking at a mountain of debts while she battled to have the harsh decisions over-turned.
In a letter sent to the DWP before her death, Ms Burns wrote: “I am old school and would still be working if I could do it. Do you think I would be silly enough to do this? I have always worked.”
“Why do they think it’s ok to treat me like this? It’s not acceptable”, she added.
Her Brother said the difficulties of living with a chronic health condition, coupled with having to repeatedly fight for the benefits she desperately needed, caused her health to deteriorate.
He claims that Atos “based their assessment on the fact she could walk the five or six steps of the stairwell to the interview room”.
“She could walk small distances and couldn’t stand for long”, he said. “Every time ATOS assessed her, they judged her fit for work.
“She described how one man said, ‘I’ve been watching you walk from the waiting room and as far as I’m concerned, you’re fit for work’.”
He continued: “These appeals would take six to eight months. Every single time, she won the appeal and got a backdated payment. But in that period, she would get into debt and lose her credit rating.
“And then she’d get back on an even keel until the next year, when the same thing would happen.”
Mr Burns, who lives in Denmark, said his sister had become reclusive during the last year of her life, adding that he had last spoke to her on 3 April.
Having not heard from his sister for some time, Mr Burns asked a friend and neighbour to check up on her.
He said: “They knocked on the door and went around the back. Through the kitchen window, they could see piles of dishes.
“The police came quarter of an hour later. They got through the back door and found her at the bottom of the stairs.”
Mr Burns came to his sister’s home the following day. “I came the next day … all around the sofa was a pile of letters and debts.
“It was terrible heartbreak and I just feel it could have all been avoided… everyone is treated as cheats or maybe the DWP have an agenda.
“Whatever it is, it’s putting people like Sandra under incredible amounts of stress.”
A DWP spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with Ms Burns’ family. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that people get the support they’re entitled to.
“Assessments are carried out by qualified healthcare professionals who look at how someone’s disability or health condition impacts them on a day-to-day basis.”
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article and need support, the Samaritans can be contacted free on 116 123 (UK).
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