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Issue #1778      May 24, 2017

Compo on the block

Almost 7,000 NSW workers with chronic work-related injuries who have been off work for at least five years due to their injuries will be kicked off the Workers’ Compensation benefits at the end of this year. The new laws introduced by the NSW government in 2012 were brought in at the time when the Workers’ Compensation scheme was in surplus of up to $2,000,000 (and when it was alleged that the Workers’ Compensation would go $4,000,000,000 into deficit if nothing was done).

Under the changes injured workers assessed as not over 20 percent Whole Person Impairment, would have their benefits stopped after five years – and the five years comes into effect for almost 7,000 workers this December.

If they are assessed at 15% over then they can still claim common law. If they are assessed as over 11%, they can continue with ongoing treatment costs but their benefits/wages are forfeited. These are high WPI figures (you have to lose your dominant arm or be almost paraplegic to get over the 20 percent level.)

Effectively most of the 7,000 workers with chronic injuries preventing them from working, and having been deemed unfit for work for five years, will be kicked out – onto Centrelink and Medicare.

The Workers’ Compensation insurance companies are saying that the injured workers will be transitioned onto welfare benefits/ Pension system and Medicare – but this is unlikely to be the case.

To qualify for the pension, you need at least 20 points and almost be paraplegic, and the freeze on the Medicare rebate means that doctors previously paid $76 for a work injury consult will now fall to the frozen Medicare rebate of $36 bulk billed. Many doctors will charge the $76 and the injured worker will only get $36 back from Medicare.

The alternative is fairly clear, get back to work or starve. By definition if an injured worker has not gotten more than 20 percent to keep their benefits, they are highly unlikely to transition onto the disability support pension – where they will again need 20 points. And to qualify for the Disability Support Pension (DSP), you need to be almost paraplegic –need to have 20 points or more which is equivalent to almost paraplegic or loss of three-quarter of your back movements – by definition three quarters loss of back movements would mean you could not bend your back enough to sit in a chair.

In fact the 20 percent whole person impairment is set incredibly high and calculated to exclude the greater majority of injured workers, i.e., if you are injured at work, you will not get benefits for more than five years and treatment costs for only one or two years before transitioning onto Medicare bulk billing and Centrelink. And to stay on Centrelink benefits those same injured workers who have been unable to return to work for five years, will have to start looking for work or lose even those Centrelink benefits.

By way of comparison consider that a 10 percent whole person impairment threshold was brought in with the new Motor Vehicle Act around the year 2000 – and that figure was chosen because it was calculated to knock out most soft tissue injury claims including a soft tissue injury of the neck and the back combined could not get over the 10 percent level. Now the new level for injured workers is being set at twice that.

In effect the overwhelming majority of injured workers in NSW now have a five-year limit on any benefits – unless they are severely injured or paraplegic or lost the use of their dominant upper limb or suffer from a psychotic illness including being suicidal.

As with the current 7,000 about to lose all their benefits, they will have no option but to return to work – and this means competing with able-bodied workers with an already high unemployment rate. They will have to enrol on Centrelink even though they have been unfit for work for five years and, at most, offered an English upgrade course to help them find work – as a parting gift from the insurance companies.

Many will also not reach the 11 percent threshold to qualify for ongoing treatment costs as private patients and they will thus be depending on increasingly scarce bulk billing doctors with the current bulk billing Medicare freeze.

Many will try and fight through their solicitor to maintain their benefits but the reality is that the worker and their solicitor will have to beg the system for money for second opinion, and that the bar to qualify for ongoing benefits has been set extremely high – and the injured workers will be assessed by in-house insurance doctors, so the system is heavily stacked in favour of the insurance companies (and the bosses). And time is running out for the first 7,000 workers affected.

The notification letter is being sent out to the treating doctor and to the injured worker – and neither will understand how the WPI system works, what the assessment means, what to do about it and whether the assessment is correct or not. It is really being presented as a fait accompli. Some workers will challenge the percentage through their solicitors and be sent to specialist for second opinion on their whole person impairment – but the fact is that the bar has been set extremely high and it will be extremely difficult to challenge the insurance doctors.

The real losers will not be just those workers about to lose their benefits this December. The real losers are all workers but particularly younger workers – all of us will end up in the same boat if we end up with a permanent injury at work. The real loser is workplace safety which is being sacrificed for insurance profits and the boss’s profits. The bosses may benefit from Workers’ Compensation premiums going down, but mainly because they can speed up the work rate and reduce costs for maintaining a safe and healthy workplace.

Yes, you should get your whole person impairment checked by an expert and maybe appeal through a solicitor – although it is unclear who will pay these costs and it will be very opaque process for non-English speaking injured workers (and even for those who are English speaking).

But, the real answer lies in fighting back through the unions and worker power, getting organised and through active and militant industrial action, winning back a fairer health and safety environment at work. If you don’t fight, you lose, and if you get injured it will be simply “tough luck”.

Next article – Concern over coal mine bid

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