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ACC Claimants Punished For Living Overseas

BIG NEWS INVESTIGATES ACC

ACC Claimants Punished For Living Overseas


By Dave Crampton

ACC is telling claimants who live overseas to return to New Zealand at their own expense to be assessed for vocational assessments or risk losing compensation, even if they don’t need an assessment. Claimants they are allowed to use their own doctor to prove they are entitled to compensation from ACC, yet if they are assessed as fit to work in an occupation nominated by the assessor, they are kicked off the scheme as they are declared rehabilitated.

If they don’t return for the assessment because they can’t afford to, they are told that they will no longer receive ACC entitlements. This is despite some claimants being asked to return for assessments, that, in some cases, they don’t even need. In March 2001 ACC boss Gary Wilson sent a letter to all claimants living overseas informing them that they would not be disadvantaged by living overseas. Yet the ACC Act specifically prohibits the payment for rehabilitation costs incurred outside New Zealand, except in limited circumstances.

ACC has about 200 claimants living overseas on its books. Since 1 April, more than 60 have been asked to return to New Zealand, at their own expense, to be assessed. Half of them refused. Yet only two of these claimants – a husband and wife – had entitlements suspended. Of the others, seven were medically exempt, three had been offered jobs, one advised that he had “ a religious experience that took the pain away” and one other reported that their doctor refused to issue further medical certificates. ACC did not specify what happened to the entitlements of most of the 20 other claimants who refused to return to New Zealand for assessment. Although they were advised that compensation could be suspended for non-attendance of an assessment, it appears that that some claimants were suspended for not returning, but not others.

While it is justifiable to ensure that claimants who live overseas are legitimately on ACC, it is important to request assessments of claimants who need to be assessed and are able to travel. If a claimant is not fit for work and that view is backed up by a doctor, why should that claimant have to travel to New Zealand at their own expense to be told that he or she cannot work, or is fit for an irrelevant job?

The Corporation insists that nominated assessors must assess claimants, but all of these assessors live and work in New Zealand. Yet there is nothing in the Accident Rehabilitation Compensation Insurance Act 2001 which precludes using qualified ACC assessors who live overseas. In fact the Act specifically says if a qualified assessor is not available the Corporation can use a suitable assessor to assess a claimant. In the case of Australia, there are many who work for similar organisations and ACC has used them in the past. Not any more.

When claimants return to New Zealand to be assessed, if they are classed as fit for selected work or fit for work at a nominated occupation, many have to go back overseas to work as they cannot get a work permit. Mind you, if a claimant was assessed to do a job he or she was not qualified for, and were not as fit as ACC says they were, who would employ them anyway?

In some cases claimants have been advised against travelling long distances due to the deterioration of their condition. Yet ACC may place more weight on seeking that claimant to be assessed even at the risk of their condition deterioating when it has the power to assess the claimant in the country he resides in. In these cases if a claimant refuses to travel on medical advice, even if that advice is provided to the Corporation, his entitlements may be suspended.

Those who reside overseas and have an accident while visiting New Zealand are entitled to ACC while they are in New Zealand. Should they leave the country compensation is cut. However, ACC does pay out lump sums to overseas visitors who return to their home country, and should these claimants require assessment, the claimant is not required to return to New Zealand, and a suitably qualified medical practitioner must forward information to a New Zealand assessor. A claimant’s injury must be extensive to qualify for lump sums. Such claimants will be so badly injured they probably wouldn’t be able to travel anyway.

The Government has not passed regulations allowing weekly compensation to extend to overseas visitors who leave the country, as it has the power to under the ACC Act. Also, ACC management refuses to make any recommendations to the ACC minister in this area as it will lead to money funded through general taxation being spent on non tax-payers living overseas who are in receipt of compensation. Never mind that hundreds of people who do not pay tax are in receipt of ACC in this country, most of them children.

But this has serious consequences for accident victims living overseas. Not only do the accident victims miss out on rehabilitation, they do not have the right to sue for damages and therefore end up on social security in the country they are returning to as they are not fit to return to work. Prior to the 1992 Act, ACC covered such claimants while they were living overseas as long as the treatment was reasonable by ACC standards. Now ACC insists that they “manage their own rehabilitation through their own resources”. These accident victims should have the right to sue for damages if they are not able to receive compensation. How can these accident victims possibly recover?

One claimant, who became a paraplegic in a 1997 motor accident, moved to Australia in 1998. She says the move was “based entirely on whether or not (she) was still entitled to receive weekly compensation” payments. Before leaving she received a letter from her case manager stating “ ACC claimants who are certified ‘totally unfit’ are able to travel overseas without their weekly compensation being affected, provided they maintain adequate medical certification”. There was no mention of returning back to New Zealand for any assessments.

In March 2001 the claimant received a letter from ACC boss Gary Wilson stating that overseas claimants will not be disadvantaged by living overseas, but may have to return for an assessment. In 2002 she was asked to return to NZ for an assessment. As the new Act had come into force, she would have to pay her way. Had she lived in Whangarei ACC would have paid for the trip to Christchurch - at a greater cost.

In November 2002 the claimants case manager, based in Wellington, informed her that she would be in Brisbane the following month to meet with claimants and providers. An appointment was made with the threat that compensation would be stopped if she didn’t turn up. A Brisbane bus timetable was even sent to the claimant to ensure that she gets to the appointment at the hospital. Remember though, that the claimant is a paraplegic and therefore would find it pretty difficult to travel on a Brisbane bus.

If she was unhappy with being assessed, resulting in compensation being docked, she was advised she could always review the decision – and perhaps return to New Zealand – presumably at her own expense – to attend a review hearing.

This claimant’s Australian GP is appalled about the way her patient has been treated by the ACC and says her patient is on the verge of severe depression because of the way ACC is dealing with her.

She is not the only one.

ENDS

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