Dog whistle medicine and disability denial

Here I review the corporate connections of the Wessely School with the insurance industry. The picture featured above shows the cover of a book edited by Peter Halligan and Mansel Alyward alongside a similar cover from the UnumProvident annual report of 2002.

Imaginary conversation

Imagine the conversation, which must have gone something like this:

Unum executive: Hi, how are you Mansel?

Aylward: Nor bad, thank you, I think I’ve got my ducks in a row with the university and the department.

Unum exec: Oh, great, your funding applications are being given serious attention.

Aylward: That’s wonderful, is there anything more I can do in return?

Unum exec: Well, yes, please keep plugging that biopsychosocial model thingy. Would be very good for our customers and, umm, well, yes, the profit margins of the company.

Aylward: Well, yes, sure, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re full steam ahead on it at the DWP also. We’ve got a new book about it coming out very soon.

Unum exec: Great. How about the book cover? Can you make it the same as our 2002 annual report?

Aylward: Well, yes, I’ll have to check with the publisher, of course, but I’m sure we can manage something quite similar.

Unum: This is why I like working with you guys, you are so cooperative.

Aylward: The feeling is mutual. Did you say the cheque’s in the post?

2002 Report by UnumProvident (on left} and book edited by Halligan and Aylward


Dogwhistle medicine

There’s nothing like a cartoon to get your point across. Here’s one chosen by Sir Mansel.

This picture is a favourite slide of inner circle member, Mansel Alyward, in a talk about disability medicine.

Another of Sir Mansell’s slides suggests the existence of strong scientific evidence that “we could reduce sickness absence due to common health problems by 30-50%, reduce number going on to chronic incapacity by 30-50% and, in principle, by much more” (Aylward, 2005).  

In Aylward’s own words lies the policy agenda for Unum, DWP, and the Wessely School all rolled into one:

‘Get people on sickness benefits back to work as quickly as possible’.

And if you can’t get them back to work, make sure their diagnosis is mental health not physical health.”

That’s the Holy Grail, a quick sharp shock (no pun intented) of GET and CBT, or no insurance payments for the rest of your unemployed life.

Under the imprint of the Royal Society of Medicine, Waddell and Aylward (2009) applied this approach in a comprehensive analysis of sickness and disability in common health problems, e.g. back pain and CFS.

Basically, it’s all about blaming the victim.

Dog whistles everywhere

Blaming-the-victim attitudes are contagious. They may be strong in Britain but in the popularist world they are spreading absolutely everywhere. Especially in disability medicine.

The European Union of Medicine in Assurance and Social Security EUMASS met in September, 2019. Its Vice President, Dr Gert Lindenger, gave a presentation entitled: How can social security/insurance better benefit from Cochrane Reviews?

One of Lindenger’s first slides reproduces the cartoon above. The joke sends a message. The audience smirks and smiles.

Nice to see Sir Mansel’s handiwork disseminating across Europe. The sophistication of the science may not bowl one over but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Look at this piece of epidemiological wisdom:

I bet you didn’t know that!? It’s got nothing to do with the government or Brexit or COVID-19. Dr Lindenger’s arrow is arriving near you.

More seriously, another of Dr Lindenger’s slides shows the sick leave figures from across Europe, 1987-2018.

The dog whistles are becoming a little shrill, perhaps, especially for the disability medics in Norway. But three cheers, for Sir Mansel and Sir Simon, the UK is up to speed and currently producing some of the lowest numbers of sick leavers right across Europe.

Another of Dr Lindenger’s slides asks: What is the essence of a work disability claim? he gives some straightforward answers:

• Very few medical conditions will with certainty lead to a completely reduced work ability.

• An assessment of work ability often involves interpretations which includes evaluations of where the limit is drawn for what strains and pressures that should normally be tolerated – what is reasonable for asking a claimant to contribute to his/hers own support?

Just an aside, from Unum’s perspective, a third related point, does the claimant perhaps have a work-related insurance policy that can’t pay out? If so, lovely jubbly!

Insurance Companies’ Involvement

Mansel Aylward, with most other members of the Wessely School, formed strong connections with the insurance industry and with UnumProvident and Swiss Re in particular. Here I discuss the profile of Unum.

In 2005 the California Department of Insurance investigations into Unum and found “widespread fraud”, prompting California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi to describe Unum as an “outlaw company.”

In 2012 legal website reported, “Unum continues to suffer from a global reputation that it denies, delays or discontinues benefits in an alleged attempt to wear down policyholders in their pursuit of legitimate benefits.”

The Unum/Provident Scandal

Unum provides the largest share of private sickness unemployment insurance in the US and UK. It isn’t all good news for Unum however. A Unum class action lawsuit in the US has been called “The Unum/Provident Scandal.

Unum (known then as Unum/Provident) was alleged to have denied or terminated thousands of legitimate disability claims starting in the 1990s and continuing until 2002.

The Unum class action lawsuit came about after an investigation by the US Department of Labor that put the long history of Unum claim denial under the microscope. The investigation also looked into Unum’s subsidiary companies, which at the time were Unum Life Insurance Company, Paul Revere Life Insurance Company, and Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company.

The Department of Labor found the company was acting “unfair and unjust” by deliberately resorting to fraudulent tactics of claim denial as a cost control measure. The claims involved employee group disability policies. In an investigation that involved insurance regulators from 48 states, lawsuits against Unum were granted class action status for violation of ERISA laws.

Under court order, Unum was directed to reopen more than 200,000 denied claims, and to reevaluate the claims based on their merit. Unum was charged with overhauling the methods by which they evaluate and process claims. Unum was also ordered to pay a fine of $15 million to several states.

Lesson Not Learned

After such legal actions and repercussions, Unum should have learned a lesson and learned to play by the rules. Not so.

According to the American Association for Justice in a document entitled: “The Ten Worst Insurance Companies in America“, where Unum is honoured with 2nd place, by 2007 Unum confessed that only 10 percent of the claims earmarked for reopening under the terms of the previous legal settlements had been reviewed.

New cases are ongoing

See this:

The Wessely School sure did choose some fine bedfellows.

Sir Mansel is now at a different Welsh university. Did something go wrong at Cardiff? Or is Swansea just nicer than Cardiff?


Personal footnote

Oblivious to the context, I contributed by invitation a chapter to Halligan and Aylward’s book on The Power of Belief. My chapter about ‘subjective validation’ concerns a process that happens when one’s beliefs are confirmed by ambiguous or contrary evidence. It is especially prevalent in the field of the anomalous experiences e.g. the paranormal. I had already critiqued the biopsychosocial model in a co-authored textbook on Health Psychology, currently in its 6th edition. Awareness of the abuse of the BPSM in disability denial deepened this critique significantly.

Published by dfmarks


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