Howard's End: Nonsense Follows Nonsense at ACC
By Maree Howard
On Thursday the Transport Select-Committee, which covers ACC matters, will meet to discuss launching an investigation into ACC after senior politicians demanded urgent action. In their deliberations they ought to remember that now and then one error may be driven out by an opposite error; one piece of nonsense by another piece of nonsense; but for barring the door effectually and for ever against all error and all nonsense, there is nothing like the simple truth. Maree Howard writes.
ACC claimants over many months having been saying they, and the public, have been receiving a raw deal from the ACC.
Alarming revelations have been carried mainly by Scoop and the Sunday-Star Times newspaper to the point where rumblings about ACC at a top level in the Beehive are becoming louder. Scoop is now aware that some senior Minister's are worried about the problems within ACC and are making off-the-record comments.
By all accounts it looks likely the select-committee will launch an inquiry but at what level is anybody's guess. It ought to be a full-on look at ACC practices over the last 10 years.
The claimants, the business community and the public, who all pay their $2.2 billion in levies each year, who have trusted ACC to do its job to compensate and rehabilitate injured New Zealanders deserve nothing less.
Claimants are holding their breath over which direction the select-committee will take.
Some are saying the committee will hold up the Code of Claimant's Rights due next February as the solution. Others are saying, including this correspondent, that the Code is nothing more than a code of office procedure and are not effective rights or remedy at all.
For instance, there is no penalty or sanction in the Code for those ACC employees who transgress. The claimant can be put to frustration, annoyance, distress and economic loss while the ACC offender continues to walk away scott-free.
One suggestion from claimants is that any ACC employee who is found in breach of the Code should suffer a penalty like being "demoted" to a lower salary scale for a period of time, say, six or 12 months - depending on the severity of the offence. That would be a start.
Another concern of claimants is the neutrality, impartiality and independence of the allocated reviewers from the wholly-owned ACC subsidiary, Dispute Resolution Services Limited (DRSL) who will review decisions under the new Code.
Many reviewers are former ACC employees and there is a real apprehension of bias, not least that some lawyers are simply not going to review now preferring to let a reviewer make a decision and then take it to court.
As one very prominent lawyer said recently to Scoop: "It's like an f......in' Lottery" Boy, was he angry!
The Courts themselves are over-burdened so the Code of Claimant's Rights was likely seen by Government as a cost-effective way of reducing that burden.
But the ACC legislation does not allow a person lodging a complaint under the Code to appeal the decision of the reviewer to the courts so the review process must beyond reproach and unimpeachable.
However, both Scoop and the Sunday-Star Times have reported extensively about public and legal concerns over the integrity and the substantive and procedural fairness of the current review process and of DRSL. The work ought to be placed out to competitive tender.
There are also claims that the ACC Complaints Investigation Office is so biased that it ought to be disbanded.
Scoop has seen emails between ACC Branch staff and Complaints Office staff which can only be described as disturbing considering that the complaints office touts itself to the public as being independent and impartial. It cannot provide a remedy to a complaint either - it can only make recommendations which ACC may or may not accept - it is a charade.
A major problem is that ACC does not seem to be one organisation.
ACC seems to operate like Osama Bin Laden's cell network with each Branch seemingly autonomous with salary scaling of employees tied to Branch performance.
The lack of consistency in decisions and actions between one ACC branch employee and the next is astounding and can only lead to the conclusion that ACC is not one organisation.
And yet the ACC law is supposed to apply equally to all people across the whole country.
That situation needs a long hard look by the select-committee because some claimants are receiving a level of rehabilitation from one Branch while another claimants, in a parallel situation at another Branch, are not. Some claimants are losing their weekly compensation through a decision at one Branch while another claimant at another Branch in the same situation does not.
It all seems to depend on the whim of the Branch or Case Manager. Scoop has seen some vindictive and vicious decisions from individual case managers where claimants are losing their weekly compensation for many months before the problem can be addressed in the Courts.
It is an absolute urgency for ACC to conduct a fair and proper hearing by competent people BEFORE compensation is stopped. That is not happening and some ACC employees are using it as a powerful financial and oppressive tool against claimants and their families to get their own way.
It is an absolute disgrace and it must stop - not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, but right now.
In my view the ACC practices place the former IRD and WINZ behaviour well in the shade. Those two organisations have improved dramatically and so it must also for ACC.
Christmas is coming and I know of some ACC families who will be suffering financial and family hardship over many months until their case can get into court to be heard. Meanwhile the case managers will likely have a wonderful Christmas with their families with gifts like deck-chairs and sun umbrellas being showered on them by ACC as they go on holiday.
None of this is acceptable because it makes the law unstable with people - and lawyers- being unable to be guided by their knowledge and the content of the ACC law.
Scoop understands that if the select-committee sits on its hands on Thursday, a number of lawyers have claims to the High Court ready to be lodged against ACC and some of its employees before Christmas break-up.
But it's more than that - the Minister must act now to ensure that injured New Zealanders who are presently suffering at the hands of ACC employees have redress - today.