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Howard's End: ACC Situation Report - Deteriorating

The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) is again in the public spot-light following the release last week of the Annual Report of the Office of the Ombudsman who contemplated invoking its rarely-used powers of review because of on-going issues and the significant increase in complaints against ACC. Maree Howard writes.

Complaints directed at the ACC have again increased in number, are becoming more complex, are taking more time to resolve, there are perceptions of bias by medical practitioners ACC uses, and, in the past year, the Ombudsman issued three formal recommendations against ACC under its rarely-used formal recommendation authority.

The Ombudsman's reports says; " Any review by us would have looked at issues involving case management processes and procedures including relationship management with ACC clients and the fairness of the policy processes and procedures and management of the Remote Claims Unit."

" We discussed these issues in general terms with the Controller and Auditor-General whose Annual Plan for the year ending 30 June 2003 indicated an intention to carry out a study of ACC case management. In the circumstances we will not initiate our own review, but await the outcome of that review," the report says.

Scoop has carried reports over recent months about significant problems within ACC.

The latest annual report of the Ombudsman puts the Parliament and the Government on notice to get it sorted - and quick!

The report says: "In last year's report we noted the significant increase in complaints directed at the Corporation. We also noted that the cases had increased in complexity and were taking more time to resolve. That trend has continued into this reporting year."

In 2001/2002 there were 251 complaints relating to Ombudsmen Act investigations but these numbers do not include investigations under the Official Information Act or the occasions where an ACC claimant has contacted one of the Ombudsman's offices to discuss their particular concerns.

" In many instances these will not lead to a formal complaint but will be resolved by advice being given as to how best deal with the issue without recourse to the provisions of the Ombudsmen Act," the report says.

"We reported last year on the operations of the Remote Claims Unit. We will not traverse the issues we raised again in this report. Suffice to say that the issues are no less real now than they were 12 months ago and in fact may have exacerbated."

"During the past 12 months we have again been involved in cases where the claimants who have been placed in the Unit consider that they are severely disadvantaged and are not receiving appropriate service and care."

"We urge the Corporation to re-examine all their policies and processes in relation to RCU and would be happy to work with the Corporation to do this in light of our experiences and knowledge."

The report says: " During the year a number of complaints were received from claimants who believed that the relationship between ACC and the medical practitioners it uses to provide assessments at the various stages of the case management process was biased. This perception appears to arise in at least three circumstances."

The report lists three headings and then provides reasons for the perception of bias under those headings.

Medical practitioners employed part-time by ACC - Overuse of certain medical specialists by ACC - Use of particular medical specialists by ACC.

"The perception of bias in the selection of the various medical practitioners who advise the Corporation is not a new development."

"In his 1994 report on ACC's administration, former Chief District Court Judge Peter Trapski commented ‘the Corporation must ensure that opinions it obtains from medical practitioners are independent, not only of the claimant but also of the Corporation and that they are seen to be so.’ It is apparent from the number of complaints received arising from a perception of bias, that the Corporation has some way to go to develop a fully transparent medical referral policy."

"The question has arisen as to whether an ACC reviewer is a "tribunal" for the purposes of the Ombudsmen's Act. If this were so, it would effectively remove from the Ombudsman's jurisdiction the current right citizens have to complain to the Ombudsman about the manner in which their claims have been handled by ACC, that is, complaints of delay in processing claims, unreasonable procedures, unreasonable conduct etc. While we do not believe that an ACC reviewer is a "tribunal" the issue has been raised and is currently the subject of discussion with ACC."

Scoop has seen the 1994 former Chief District Court judge Peter Trapski report into ACC where he commented:

"The methods in no way conformed to accepted principles of law - there were serious deficiencies in ACC staff attitudes - negative and perverse decision-making - ignoring medical reports - selective about which reports were used - confrontational and adversarial attitudes - lack of empathy with people - little understanding of concerns - no recognition of facts - implied and explicit threats in phone calls and correspondence - reliance on flimsy evidence - unhealthy readiness almost and eagerness to discontinue compensation payments - referred claimants to specialists time and time again to obtain specific formal diagnosis until it found one favourable to itself - used medical 'hit-men’ - little knowledge and training in medico/legal issues."

From this correspondent's knowledge of ACC and its processes and procedures removal of the Ombudsman's oversight of ACC would be a serious threat to justice and democracy and is to be resisted at all costs.

Nothing much has changed within the ACC culture and mindset since the 1994 Traspki inquiry. The Parliament and the Government are again on notice - get the ACC organisation and its Board of Directors sorted-out, or don't you care?

ENDS

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