Much needed changes to the workers compensation scheme announced in May 2018 will allow all injured workers who dispute the amount of money they receive while off work to seek help from a lawyer.

The plans to change the workers compensation system came after many injured workers complained of having to wrestle with a complicated and confusing system that left insurers holding all the cards on how much the payout for workplace injuries would be, with the victim having little chance of mounting a successful challenge.

Injured workers to have access to experienced compensation lawyers

The planned changes announced by the NSW government go some way to correcting a gross unfairness in the workers compensation system, by allowing victims to have assistance from lawyers experienced in compensation law to argue their case and help navigate the system.

The changes will make it easier for injured workers to get free legal assistance to challenge insurers' decisions on the amount of compensation, and also to challenge decisions in the Workers Compensation Commission.

Workers compensation system swells to $4 billion surplus while injured workers have benefits cut

But the changes will not reverse the severe cuts to benefits to injured workers made by the government in 2012, that saw benefit payments decline 25 per cent in just five years. While injured workers suffered from the drastic cuts to financial support, the workers compensation system has swelled to a surplus of $4 billion.

A report produced by the Australia Institute's Centre for Future Work in April 2018 stated that the supposed crisis which justified the 2012 cuts was based on falsehoods, and that there was no moral or financial justification for injured workers continuing to suffer reduced benefits. (See Restoring Security and Respect: Rebuilding NSW's Workers Compensation System.)

In December 2017, thousands of injured workers who are unable to work lost their monthly benefits under the scheme, forcing many onto welfare and to rely on charity.

Changes to workers compensation intended to enable faster resolution of disputes

NSW Finance Minister Victor Dominello said the changes to reform workers compensation will improve the "experience" of injured workers by improving support services, simplifying claim processes and removing duplication. Some of the changes will require legislation later in 2018.

"A Government review found that there are a number of ways in which we can improve the claims process for injured workers by enabling faster resolution of disputes," Mr Dominello said. (See media release, New dispute resolution process for workers compensation.)

Under the proposed changes, all enquiries and complaints from injured workers that are not resolved with their insurer in the first instance will be directed to the Workers Compensation Independent Review Office (WIRO) for assistance.

The changes will see all enquiries and complaints from employers and other system participants being referred to the State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA). In addition, the Workers Compensation Commission will undertake all dispute resolution once an internal review is completed by an insurer, removing these functions from SIRA and WIRO.

Regional areas in NSW severely affected by 2012 changes to workers compensation

It appears that people in regional areas have been particularly hard hit by the government's 2012 changes to the workers compensation system. The Central Western Daily newspaper recently reported that the number of workplace injury claims in the Orange area was 73 per cent higher than the NSW average.

The newspaper reported that according to the NSW government insurance and care provider icare, 400 people were injured in workplaces in Orange in 2017, equating to 26 claims per 1000 employees. (See Workplace injuries 73 per cent higher in Orange than state average.)

The convenor of the Injured Workers Support Network in Orange, Joe Maric, said it wasn't clear why workplace injuries were higher in Orange than elsewhere. He noted that the changes made to workers' compensation in 2012 and to work health and safety had led to an increase in workplace injuries, with the onus for safety being taken off the employer.

Justin Stack
Workers compensation
Stacks Law Firm

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