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Injury Prevention & Rehabilitation Bill - Bradford

Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation Bill (ACC Round 2) Third Reading speech, Tuesday 11 September 2001

Sue Bradford, Green Party MP

Mr Speaker,

Today marks what I hope will be the beginning of a major culture shift in the governance, management and operations of the Accident Compensation Corporation. The ACC has been through many changes, trials and tribulations since the early 1990s. However, we are now fortunate enough to have a Government which believes that it is important that injury prevention comes first and that workers should not necessarily be automatically harassed and penalised if they are unfortunate enough to have an accident at work.

With the passage of this second major piece of legislation reforming the ACC I now hope that we will all see a critical turn around in attitude and performance. Underlying so many of the submissions to our Select Committee was the sense of grievance, fear and anger that has underpinned so many of the public's dealings with ACC in this generation.

The Corporation has a chance to change this now, and I hope it will seize the nettle firmly and without hesitation. It is time to bring to an end the culture of blaming and harassment which has so characterised the last ten years and more. It is time to work alongside employers and employees alike to make workplaces as safe as is humanly practicable and possible. It is also time to start working with claimants rather than against them when determining long term rehabilitation plans and outcomes.

The Green Party has been pleased with the way this Bill has developed, and the willingness of Government to consider amendments both while the Select Committee process was in train, and during the later Committee stages here in the House. Many amendments, both minor and major, were made to improve the Bill during the Select Committee proceedings.

And last week we were delighted that the Labour and Alliance Parties saw fit to support a number of Green Party amendments, including firstly, one to Part 2 of the Bill. There will now be an expert panel set up to advise the Minister on gradual process injuries and occupational diseases such as OOS and workplace poisoning by things like asbestos, chemicals, toxins or radiation. This will help ensure that workers suffering these kinds of illnesses and injuries do not have to suffer long waiting periods and needless humiliation in trying to prove that they are eligible for ACC, as has happened all too often in the past.

The second critical amendment which has also gone through with Government support dealt with resources for groups which carry out ACC advocacy. While in the past advocates could collect a small fee at the time of taking a claimant's case to review, what they have not been able to do is apply to ACC for funding for the ongoing infrastructure, maintenance and development of their organisations.

As I've pointed out several times over the past week during this debate, ACC advocacy is one of the toughest types there is, and yet it has traditionally been the hardest to fund. From the time of the implementing of this Bill onwards, it will be possible for organisations carrying out ACC advocacy work to receive funding and other resources directly from ACC, rather than having to beg solely from other funding sources.

This is a giant step forward in terms of the Government recognising the reality of the need for some people to have advice and support in their dealings with the Corporation, and in terms of the ACC accepting more responsibility for funding groups than they ever have in the past. I also believe that the Code of Claimants Rights will be meaningless unless there are properly trained and resourced ACC advocacy groups out there on the ground ready to back the Code up when people do run into difficulties.

The third Green Party amendment which has been supported by Government and which will therefore now be law shifts the burden of proof on to the ACC in the event that ACC claims that a mistake has been made, and that an entitlement should be reversed.

Up till now, when ACC has claimed that a mistake has occurred, even when it's their fault, the onus has been on the claimant to access all their past medical records to prove that they were in fact injured, which has been difficult, time-consuming and costly for them.

We felt it was fair and appropriate in line with the new more socially responsible goals of the Corporation that the burden of proof when decisions are reversed should fall on the ACC with all its resources, rather than on ACC recipients who are often in the most poverty stricken and desperate of circumstances.

The fourth area where we have seen an improvement to the Bill in line with Green Party policy has been with the addition of an ethical investment clause in Part 7. ACC has almost $3 billion dollars invested, mainly in equities and securities according to their year 2000 Annual Report.

Part of their statement of intent is a commitment to reduce the incidence of personal injury. The Green Party had put up an amendment carrying over this commitment to the investment arena, by requiring ACC to have an ethical investment policy and to report on the environmental and social implications of its investment portfolio.

While the Green Party's SOP did not go through in its original form, I was pleased to support an alternative Government amendment which at least adds to the Statement of Intent a clause saying that the Corporation's investment statement must include a section relating to ethical investment for avoiding prejudice to New Zealand's reputation as a responsible member of the world community. We hope that in future this will be extended and amended to take a stronger more proactive position, but at least this is a small first positive step in the right direction.

The Green Party did of course attempt to make other changes to the Bill which failed. One of the most significant of these was our attempt to require the Government to examine the options around a permanent pension. Probably the most difficult of all issues surrounding ACC is the vexed question of what to do for and about those few people who are injured and who are never able to work again in their lifetimes.

This inability to work can be for a whole range of reasons, ranging from the impact of the original injury through to associated physical and mental health problems, plus the additional factor of the fact that we live in an economy subject to mass structural unemployment, in which it is extra hard for any person who is disabled to obtain meaningful paid work.

The only long term solution to this problem as we see it is to try and formulate a type of permanent pension that takes into account of the person's injury and overall age, health and local job market, at the same time as recognising the necessary constraints of ACC and Government budgets. It is difficult to bring social welfare and ACC together under one formula, as ACC is a genuine accident insurance system among other things, while income support is a far more generalised and usually lower level entitlement.

We believe that what is needed now is a serious look at how various forms of permanent pension might work given the fiscal restraints, but also recognising how terrible it is that some people have their lives turned into living nightmares by the current work capacity testing regime.

We had put up an amendment which would have required the Government to take a thorough look at an option for a permanent pension within the next two years, but unfortunately they saw fit to veto this SOP. However, we remain hopeful after hearing some of the Minister's comments during the debate in the Committee stages, that in fact the Government will take responsibility for picking up some of the work that needs to be done in this area, and we would like to offer our interest and support in this task should it eventuate.

Another area where this Bill failed to make quite the progress we would have liked is in the regulations relating to rehabilitation. We had wanted, like a number of submitters, to stop the current practice of requiring injured workers to make co-payments for medical or physiotherapy treatment.

We believe this Government should adhere to ILO conventions 12 and 17, including the section which states, among other things, that ILO convention 12 states, among other things, that " injured workmen shall be entitled to medical aid and to such surgical and pharmaceutical aid as is recognised to be necessary in consequence of accidents. The cost of such aid shall be defrayed either by the employer, by accident insurance institutions, or by sickness or invalidity insurance institutions."

At the moment many people who suffer accidents are having to pay up to $20 or $30 an appointment out of their own money if they have to see professionals like doctors, physios and osteopaths. While the Government did not agree to our amendment for fiscal reasons, we are pleased that they are continuing attempts to get co-payments reduced through the application of the Endorsed Provider Scheme.

We were also pleased that during the Select Committee process we were able to amend the Bill slightly so that in some situations home help will be paid for even when it is provided by a member of the victim's family, where they have had to come in from outside the home to do this. While this doesn't sound like much, this will actually make a huge difference to some families who are desperate for help but where the relative simply can't afford to lose the time or income for no compensation.

The Green Party had also moved an SOP which would have increased the level of payments to the spouses and children of those worker who die in accidents. Having watched the Tranzrail hearings and heard from the widows of workers, we felt that the current payments of $4,563.16 cents for spouses, and $2281.58 for dependent children were pathetic.

While our amendment has not been supported, we are relieved to hear that the Government is will continue to put work into looking at ways that survivors' grants might be raised.

In conclusion, I'd just like to say that overall this Bill is a big step forward, and I'd like to acknowledge all those who have put so much work into it, from whatever perspective. I just hope that this work will be vindicated by the sensible, holistic and proactive application of its principles by the ACC in the years to come.

ENDS

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