The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has confirmed that it expects the independent assessment service to be phased in gradually across the country from October 2014, with the service being available nationally by April 2015.
Employers will be able to refer staff directly to the Health and Work Service although it is expected that GPs will be the primary source of referrals for workers who have been or are expected to be off work for more than four weeks.
Contrary to suggestions within the industry, the service will remain voluntary for employees to participate in and doctors will not be compelled to refer patients.
As a result, the DWP estimates that between 350,000 and 700,000 people will access the service each year. This would equate to between 40% and 80% of the full population of employed people that have a period of four weeks absence due to sickness.
The DWP added that the primary means of conducting the occupational health (OH) assessment would be over the telephone, with face to face only required in 5-10% of cases.
"The GP is the main referral route and we expect referral to be the default option. We intend for there to be a referral route for employers if the GP has not referred. Once referred a case manager will be assigned to the employee," a DWP spokesman said.
"Employees who are either on, or in the GP's opinion expected to reach, a four week period of sickness absence would be suitable for referral, although employees who are expected to return to work imminently without further assistance would not be suitable for referral.
"The GP can refer earlier than four weeks if they expect that their patient will be off for longer than four weeks and anticipate either a full or partial return to work," he added.
Last month COVER's sister title WSB reported that the service was unlikely to be launched fully at its target date of October 2014.
The Health and Work Service is expected to consist of two elements:
- generic health and work advice primarily through a website and also a telephone line available to all employers, employees or GPs;
- the assessment service which will provide an occupational health assessment for employees who have been, or are likely to be, on a period of sickness absence lasting four weeks.
There will be three steps to the assessment stage of the service following referral:
- an initial assessment where a case manager will contact the employee for an initial assessment enquiring about their health condition, absence and details about their job and work pattern. A return to work plan will be agreed and weekly progress calls made;
- should this not succeed, stages 2a and stage 2b will provide more specialist advice with a more experienced OH professional or a relevant expert who can give specific advice, more detailed discussion with the employer and a face to face assessment.
According to a presentation given to potential service providers, the first implementation areas will run from October 2014 to January 2015 and will incorporate two regions in England along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The spokesman noted that this approach would allow DWP to manage risk and also understand whether any adjustments needed to be made to before the service was rolled out across the rest of the countries.
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