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WorkCover Bill - what the changes mean

A 33 year old paramedic is called to a car accident. This worker has seen horrific things in their career, but this incident is different: at this scene, the worker confronts a horrific car wreck exposing the bodies of two children and becomes severely traumatised.

Following the incident, the worker is diagnosed with severe PTSD. They must regularly see a psychiatrist, are on medication, they have suicidal thoughts and cannot leave the house. Their mother has to move in with them to look after their kids.

In the service of our state Victoria, this worker’s life has been ruined. After two and a half years, this worker can still not leave their home, let alone find another job.

Under the changes the state Labor Government is putting forward this week with the support of the Liberal Party, that worker would be kicked off workers compensation payments because they will not meet a new “Whole Person Impairment” test. They have no chance of getting Centrelink because they cannot go out and apply for jobs. They are unlikely to be eligible for the NDIS or the disability pension. The State of Victoria is officially saying “thank you for your service, but you’re now on your own”.

Workers compensation in Victoria is in trouble. Over the last three financial years the state government has contributed about $1.3billion to the scheme, attempting to cover the shortfall caused by successive governments’ refusal to raise the scheme’s premiums for twenty years. Indeed, the premiums were ratcheted down from 2.2% in 2003-4 to 1.272% in 2017-8, and have only risen back to 1.8% this year.

The scheme is haemorrhaging money for two other reasons. First, there has been a massive transformation in our society’s understanding of psychological health. Workers are not necessarily suffering from more psychological injuries than we were 15 years ago – but we are seeking treatment for those injuries, which is good news. Seeking treatment – especially early intervention – for mental health injuries prevents workers from presenting with a more severe psychological injury, and will reduce the need to seek other services; family violence, alcohol and drug addiction, homelessness, gambling, emergency health, and police services.

But the continuing stigma behind mental injury means that workers don’t present for treatment until their injury impacts their work. These claims are more expensive to resolve than physical injuries, partly due to complexity and largely because workers can’t immediately get in to see a psychologist or psychiatrist – they are booked solid. With any injury, the faster you see a health professional the quicker you will recover. Speedy recovery is the best outcome for the individual and for the health of the WorkCover scheme.

The second reason for WorkCover’s financial woes is “the long tail” of claims – that is, workers whose injuries carry on beyond 130 weeks. Again, the longer your injury takes to recover from, the less likely you are to ever return to work.

These are serious issues which need solutions, but the Government’s approach has been incredibly unsophisticated. Their legislation would mean that workers who suffer injuries as a result of work-related stress or burnout are no longer entitled to compensation. And workers who enter the “long tail” will simply be kicked off the scheme unless an insurance agent (not a doctor) determines that their medical injuries are likely to constitute a 20% WPI. Nonsensically, despite being called a “Whole Person Impairment”, the agent will only consider either physical or psychological impairment. So the trauma caused by the loss of a limb will not be considered to contribute to the worker’s impairment.

The application of the WPI test also directly contradicts the advice given by its designers. The American Medical Association text from which the test originates clearly states:

It must be emphasised and clearly understood that impairment percentages derived according to this guide should not be used to make direct financial awards or estimates on disabilities.

In essence, Victoria is picking and choosing the system they want against the best medical and scientific advice.

The problems facing Workcover are complex, but Victorians are entitled to a more sophisticated solution than the Government is offering – that is, slashing support to some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people in their hour of need.

Rather than further stigmatizing psychological injury, we must support workers to seek to receive help earlier, invest in prevention and stand up a mental health workforce to prevent the costly complications that stem from delayed treatment.

Kicking workers off compensation is an accounting trick for the government. The money “saved” from compensation will end up costing Victorians far more, as injured and traumatized individuals present to emergency health, public housing, and other social services.

The Government knows this. They have heard from a Royal Commission into Mental Health, and have, to their credit, established an early intervention investment framework. The Legislative Council Committee Inquiry heard from business groups, the Australian Medical Association, Mental Health Victoria, psychologists, rehabilitation providers, lawyers and unions – all of whom vocally and directly raised concerns and have been ignored.

Stubbornly and against expert advice the government has refused to listen and amend the Bill. At this point the government refuses to say how many injured workers will be impacted. Victorians should have a right to know. Victorian unions remain opposed to this abominable Bill. This is not what the labour movement stands for and no member of parliament should feel comfortable voting for it.

Luke Hilakari

Secretary Victorian Trades Hall Council

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Mon
15 Apr
9am
WorkSafe-approved training to help HSRs and DHSRs understand and exercise their...
Geelong Trades Hall
127 Myers St, Geelong, VIC 3220, Australia,
Mon
29 Apr
9am -
5pm
OHS refresher training for HSRs
Geelong Trades Hall
127 Myers St, Geelong, VIC 3220, Australia,
Mon
29 Apr
9am
WorkSafe-approved training to help HSRs and DHSRs understand and exercise their...
ANMF
Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia,
Mon
6 May
9am
WorkSafe-approved training to help HSRs and DHSRs understand and exercise their...
PICAC
7 11 Fullard Rd, Narre Warren, VIC 3805, Australia,