Jury still out on compo changes

TWELVE months ago the State Government released the Auditor General’s report on the review of the compensation system, managing to push through Parliament a number of significant amendments to the workers’ compensation system.

The changes made it harder for workers to sue their employers where injuries sustained at work were caused by the employer’s, or co-workers’, negligence.

The idea was to tighten claims to reduce costs, but some changes led to even tougher requirements than those recommended by the report.

A year later, it is still not clear if the amendments have worked, but anecdotal evidence is that the going is tough for workers.

We will probably see a drop in the number of claims, but there may also be a large backlog waiting to be processed.

Insurers have not been brave enough to reduce premiums, but the pressure will be on this financial year for some relief for employers.

The getting-tough trend seems to have continued with the release of two more compensation reports.

One, in relation to insurers, calls for the formation of a new independent body to oversee private compensation insurers.

The report recommends a regime of best practice and greater accountability that will be warmly welcomed by employers, workers and unions.

The real test will be who the Government appoints to the new body.

If it is packed with insurance representatives, it will not have the credibility it needs to pursue changes.

The Government has put the report out for comment and it will be interesting to see if any moves are made in the pre-election environment.

Compensation has recently fallen off the agenda, probably much to the relief of the Minister for Labour Relations.

A second report, into the medical aspects of the mpensation system, has tried to push medical practitioners into a form of accreditation.

An irritating feature is the continued emphasis on worker fraud, the demonising of compensation applicants and the authors’ apparent cynicism towards claims.

The fact is that employer fraud, through failure to insure and under declaration of premiums, has a far greater impact on the system.

This document recommends greater scrutiny of work-relatedness issues.

Unfortunately, the authors have consistently referred to ‘injury’ when the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 1981 (WA) has required establishment of a ‘disability’ since 1981.

This failure to appreciate the difference leaves doubt as to their understanding of the Act.

There are time bombs in this report, which will need to be carefully considered by the main players, in particular by the medical profession.

Despite these three major compensation documents, I suspect that, in pre-election mode, some of the work will be buried in bureaucracy unless pressure can be maintained to keep the issues alive.

Unions WA is right in pressing for an Upper House enquiry to keep things on the boil.

n Rob Guthrie is a senior lecturer at the School of Business Law, Curtin University of Technology.

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