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Howard's End: The Battle For ACCountability

An ACC claimant who alleges he has been badly treated by ACC employees over many years cut-up his WestpacTrust card on Friday after discovering that an executive of WespactTrust Bank is on the Board of Directors of the Accident Compensation Corporation. Other WestpacTrust ACC claimants are now threatening to follow suit further alleging that ACC unreasonably wastes public money. Maree Howard writes.

The public spotlight has again been turned on ACC after claimants discovered that its Board of Directors consists of some financial whizz-kids who, they allege, are allowing bad behaviour by ACC employees to continue unabated.

The claimants allege that ACC has become an organisation who unnecessarily wastes public money, is unaccountable, and which has employees as front-line managers and case managers who are treating them badly.

It's even worse, they say, because they are forced to deal with such an "oppresive organisation" because the ACC scheme is mandatory for all New Zealanders.

The claimant group has now become so large that Telecom's XTRA has provided them with their own discussion group message-board at;

http://groups.msn.com/XtraHealth/acc.msnw

The Accident Compensation Corporation is a Crown entity run by a Board of Directors who are responsible to new ACC Minister, Hon Ruth Dyson.

Ms Dyson was formerly Associate Minister but has now taken over from Lianne Dalziel in the Cabinet reshuffle following the election.

ACC has $3.8 billion invested and claimants say that the Board of Directors seems more concerned about receiving the interest on that than they are about them.

They also say they wouldn't mind a share of the losses ACC has taken over the years on its investments. But that seems to be a closely guarded secret although ACC did receive an 8% rate of return this year - but seemingly at a cost to claimants for whom the public pays $2 billion each year to have services provided.

According to ACC's website the Board is;

1. David Caygill, (Chair) Partner, Buddle Findlay.
2. Anthony Ractcliff, (Deputy Chair) Company Director.
3. George Hickton, Chief Executive, Tourism New Zealand.
4. Trevor Janes, Investment Banker.
5. Noeline Munro, Partner, Greenslades. (note: Greenslades appears to be the Dunedin-based sharebroker and investment advisors)
6. June McCabe, Executive, WestpacTrust Bank.
7. Professor Tord Kjellstrom, Professor, Australian National University, Canberra.
8. Ray Potroz, Secretary, New Zealand Dairy Workers Union.

The ACC Chief Executive is Garry Wilson.

Claimants say these people are double-dipping in the public trough, while they are going without. One claimant Scoop knows of is still waiting for a shower after 12 months. Another waited eight months for a ramp, until she threatened to go to the media and the timber arrived the next day, but that is simply not good enough.

So how is ACC allegedly wasting public funds?

Take Mrs X, a woman in her mid-fifties who has had a series of accidents which are all medically confirmed by doctors. She tries her best within her capabilities, and does voluntary community help for a few hours when she is able.

In April last year she had a fall which injured her lower back for which ACC accepted cover and she had physiotherapy treatments.

In November, ACC requested one of its appointed medical assessors to provide an up-to-date assessment of her current situation.

He did. But in his report, which is said to have cost around $1,200, the doctor said that he had not specifically investigated Mrs X's lower back pain.

"Should this become a more noticeable problem, then I believe that an Orthopaedic opinion and further investigations may need to be considered," the doctor wrote.

Fine so far, except that her ACC case manager ignored that recommendation, and Mrs X remained in pain and incapacitated.

In January there was an exacerbation of her April injury for which her own doctor and the physiotherapist recommended ten further physio treatments which, it is said, would have cost ACC around $400.

ACC refused to pay but, acting on the advice of her doctor, Mrs X had already started the physio treatment to ease her pain, so ultimately, she ended up paying for them herself.

Because ACC refused to pay, that was an "entitlement decision," so she could have it independently reviewed at a review hearing by Dispute Resolution Services Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of ACC.

Remember, the cost of the physio treatment was to have been around $400.

The review hearing was subsequently held in May 2002 which, according to solicitors, can cost around $2,000.

Even if it's half that amount, it's still more expensive than providing $400-worth of treatment in the first place.

Anyway, Mrs X lost at the review hearing held in May 2002 because the reviewer decided that ACC was entitled to rely on the November 2001 report of its own appointed medical assessor.

But remember, her doctor examined her in January 2002, two months later, and wanted her to have the physio treatment. The doctor and the physio even provided letters in support of her review application and the hearing, but to no avail.

She has subsequently had to pay for more physio treatments herself, at a discounted $30 a time, even though the legislation says that ACC must provide, "....entitlements that restores to the maximum practicable extent a claimant's health, independence and participation."

I now have a question.

If a reviewer finds that ACC is entitled to rely on a November 2001 report which didn't specifically investigate her back pain and even suggested further investigations which ACC ignored and then her doctor, two months later, recommends physio for the exacerbation of her injury and the reviewer says no, is that rational, logical and cost effective?

But it gets worse, because Mrs X can now appeal that review decision to the District Court, and she is.

Let's see now!

$400 for physio treatment, let's conservatively say $1,000 for the review hearing and now, an appeal to the District Court for which ACC will likely have to pay another conservative $1,000.

That adds up to a very conservative $2,000, all for the sake of $400-worth of physio treatments which ought to have been provided in the first place.

Scoop is aware that a judge in the District Court recently asked a long-term claimant; "have you ever had social rehabilitation?”

“No, Your honour.”

“Have you ever had an assessment for social rehabilitation?”

“No, Your Honour.”

Naturally, the decision of the judge in that case is keenly awaited.

But hang on! This person had also lost at review and then had to appeal just to get what was a statutory right to social rehabilitation which had never been provided at all, ever.

How on earth does this absurdity continue?

Well, there is an official form by which ACC case managers and managers must follow a decision path flow-chart to decide whether to proceed to a review hearing.

That form says in part:

"Is it less than $300? - Yes - settle direct with claimant."

"Is it less than $300? - No - Hearing."

Aha!!!!! There it is, any entitlement costing more than $300 and you're off to a review hearing, no matter that the cost of the hearing is likely to be a conservative $1,000 and any appeal will double that amount.

That form also asks; " Was legislation applied correctly?" Scoop has evidence where clearly it has not been.

Scoop suggests this is what routinely happens in ACC branch offices': Review, no worries, put the claimant to review and cause them anxiety, cost and stress - ACC has got the bottomless pit of the public purse at its disposal, so who cares! And anyway we're case managers and we're not held accountable anyway.

Judge Peter Trapski's 1994 report into ACC's procesess and procedures was scathing about this and many other things, but nothing's changed.

Multiply all this across the whole country for all claimants and it's not hard to see how accusations that ACC is a huge waster of public money can be levelled.

So how are ACC case managers and corporate managers getting away with this and not being held accountable?

There seems to be a huge difference in the way ACC is run by its Board of Directors and its CEO, and the way the State Services Commission ensures compliance with its codes of conduct for all public servants. ACC employees are not public servants in that sense.

It seems there is simply no-one within ACC who ensures compliance with the ACC staff Code of Conduct which says: "It is important that all employees must maintain the highest standards of integrity, discretion and ethical conduct in relation to their work duties."

And Clause 20 of Schedule 5 of the ACC Act itself says that ACC must ensure that happens. Well, the evidence and record Scoop has seen, shows that it is not. Judge Trapski was also scathing of ACC's confrontational and adversarial attitudes, and that hasn't changed either.

Scoop put a series of questions to ACC Complaints Investigator Ms Toni Izzard last Wednesday and asked her to reply by Friday. Ms Izzard did not respond, either that or she is lost for words.

Now, the Human Rights Commission has been asked to become involved because discrimination on the grounds of disability is unlawful under the Human Rights Act, and ACC certainly appears from its record to be an arch-discriminator against disability human rights.

If all injured New Zealanders aren't getting what the law says they are entitled to, for which the public pays $2 billion each year, then that must be disability discrimination, if not that, then what?

The Ombudsman says that he receives more complaints about ACC than any other organisation - including the IRD.

Now that has to tell the ACC Board of Directors and its CEO something. But then as claimants have told Scoop, perhaps they are off counting the interest on the $3.8 billion of investments or authorising the giving out of packets of lollies and staff Christmas presents as was recently reported in the media.

Perhaps ACC spending public money on packets of lollies and staff Christmas presents is now more important to the ACC Board of Directors than helping injured long-term claimants get properly rehabilitated. Mostly, they are long-term through no fault of their own.

It seems ACC has never really worked properly since about 1992. The scheme as it was first intended in 1972 was good.

And never let employers tell you that ACC levies are too high, that's a smoke-screen. Try getting private insurance for workers compensation and see how much you'll pay. The little guy can be hit hard, but for the large employer the ACC levies they have to pay are cheap in comparison.

And what's more they don't even have to worry about being sued for negligence - Hello!!!! I wonder if that is why there are so many worker deaths in New Zealand. Of course it is! No fault, you see.

But I digress. Earlier this year the long-term claimants group made requests to both Lianne Dalziel and Ruth Dyson to instigate an inquiry into ACC's processes and procedures, they refused.

WestpacTrust Bank has a "Beyond Survival" business seminar programme advertised on its Website with the catch-cry, " Yes, I want to do more than just survive"

ACC claimants intend holding ACC Director, June McCabe, from WestpacTrust to that. They also want to do more than just survive.

So the claimants, it seems, are gathering strength and now intend holding fire at the feet of the ACC Board of Directors.

It seems they want nothing more than accountablity, integrity and proper ethical standards from ACC case managers and managers and, of course, what they are lawfully entitled to, nothing more, and nothing less.

There's nothing really wrong with the ACC legislation that a bit of fine tweaking wouldn't fix, it's the way it's being administered by case managers and managers at the coal-face that's the real problem.

And the ACC Board of Directors is ultimately accountable for that.

The first shot has now been fired in what is an emerging battle as claimants first threaten to close their WespacTrust Bank accounts, starting today.

ENDS

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