The great workers’ compensation con

July 2, 2012

By Hayden Stephens

On Thursday June 21, the New South Wales State Government forced through Parliament a range of changes to the NSW workers’ compensation scheme that have effectively levelled the entire blame for WorkCovers’ $4 billion deficit with injured workers across NSW.

It is hard to know where to start talking about the deliberate onslaught against workers these changes represent.

Let’s begin with the fact that a worker’s pain and suffering, yes that strange and unexpected thing that someone suffers when hurt, is now no longer recognised under NSW law. Yes that’s right. Get injured just about anywhere else in Australia and your pain and suffering will be recognised and compensated. Not NSW though.

What else? Insurance companies can now get their own doctors to determine how badly injured a worker is. This insurer’s doctor decides when a worker is able to go back to work, and more so, this doctor can tell the worker what sort of job they should go and get. There is no independent court or tribunal to go to, just the ‘friendly’ insurer at your ‘service’. The insurance company is the judge, jury and employment manager of an injured worker.

Another concern; why is it that Barry O’Farrell constantly tells the community the workers’ compensation scheme is broken and will drive the state into economic oblivion, but when push comes to shove he back flips and lets the police, SES volunteers and fire-fighters remain in the old system?

Why does a policeman who falls off a ladder in a police station trying to reach a file and breaks a leg get more compensation for longer with better medical expenses than if the exact same accident happens to a nurse in a hospital?

The simple answer is because the Premier is scared of what would happen if he stood his ground and tried to force these essential service workers into a second rate workers’ compensation scheme.

Premier O’Farrell, along with anyone who has taken a cursory look at the reforms, knows the old scheme offers workers some protection while his changes leave most injured workers out in the cold looking after themselves.

We are not saying the police and firefighters should not get this coverage, they should. All we are saying is that if it’s good enough for them surely it’s good enough for everyone.

Another thing, every time the Premier talks about the $4 billion WorkCover deficit that is crippling the state he blames the blowout on over generous benefits and workers rorting the system.

Let me make few quick points about the “$4 billion deficit” that is sending us back into the economic Stone Age.

The facts are, according the Government’s own reports, that in June 2008 WorkCover’s balance sheet was $625 million in surplus, today it is $4.08 billion in the red – a $4.6 billion turn around in just four years. This has happened at the end of a decade when payments to workers and the number of serious injuries have actually gone down. So how could it possibly be the injured workers fault?

And just one final point on the $4 billion deficit – half of it, according the PricewaterhouseCoopers Government commissioned report, is due to bad investment decisions during the GFC – absolutely nothing to do with workers’ benefits.

As to the hysterical claims about rorting, which, according the Government is rampant and the last nail in the scheme’s coffin, this is not true. WorkCover’s last annual report reveals that of the 80,000 claims lodged just nine people were prosecuted for fraud.

Not since the Fine Cotton affair has there been such an audacious con.

Everyday hundreds of workers suffer horrific injuries at work. Their lives are filled with the daily grind of pain and rehabilitation as they attempt to get back on their feet. Sadly, some don’t return because their injuries are so severe.

As a community and government that seek to govern, these injured workers deserve our support and a regulatory scheme that distributes that support in a fair and equitable way. Sadly, under these new laws, that support is now withdrawn leaving us a regulatory scheme helping insurers, not workers, distribute what’s left of the pie.

Hayden Stephens is the general manager at Slater & Gordon in Sydney.
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