Workers Compensation Legislation

Today I commemorate the four-year anniversary of the workers compensation legislation changes that were made in this place on 19 June 2012. In the space of the four years since, the lives of thousands and thousands of people have become so much harder. As the local member of Parliament, I had the unenviable task of sitting with people as they poured out their hearts, minds, spirits and souls in a final effort to seek justice. In this place it is easy to see our decisions as abstract manoeuvres in a political game, divorced from the real-life consequences for the people we represent. I want to disrupt that comfort by sharing some of the stories of people in the Cessnock electorate who have come to me in the past four years since the Government’s workers compensation changes.

People on workers compensation have already been punished once by circumstances. They do not choose to be injured at work—why would anyone choose to be? Four years ago, the Government decided to punish them again with changes to the legislation. The safety net that had been provided to injured workers to give them some certainty and security for the future was pulled out from under them. As one example, it is rare for me to have a meeting with Gary and Kaye Grant that does not involve tears. Kaye, who suffered a disability after a workplace injury, originally came to me because she needed a new wheelchair and was having difficulty getting her insurer, the Government Insurance Office [GIO], to supply one. In truth, “difficulty” is a massive understatement. The tactics used by the GIO in stalling, obfuscating and avoiding its responsibility to provide a wheelchair for Kaye bordered upon sadistic. Members will know that I am not prone to hyperbole on issues as sensitive as this.

For having the temerity to pursue what she was entitled to, Kaye and her husband suffered one indecency after another from the GIO, each seemingly more petty and vindictive than the last. Due to her injuries, Kaye now spends 22 hours a day in bed. Three occupational therapists have been sent to assess the suitability of her bedding. The first one recommended a specialised suitable bed and that occupational therapist was dismissed. The second recommended the same bed but that occupational therapist was also dismissed. The third occupational therapist was instructed that when they went out to assess the bed, that they should only assess the topper on the bed. That would be less than 10 per cent of the expense to the insurer. These are the appalling conditions being thrust upon Gary and Kaye. Gary now has a mantra at the bottom of every fax he sends about his and his wife’s ordeal. It reads: “You should never underestimate what one’s enemies are capable of doing to win in a battle.”

Gary and Kaye are people I try to stay in touch with but I fear that one day I will ring them and they will not answer. I know what that will mean: That they have done what they have discussed with me, that is, to commit suicide. This is not an isolated story confined to one person or to one insurance company. I could speak about many more. For example, Julie, who was underpaid for several years and had a request for back pay refused. In an obvious error, her doctor had written the wrong date on her form but the insurer capitalised on the error by refusing payment after that date but never informing her of their intention to do so. I can tell the story of a security guard who wrote to me as shadow Minister. He is from the Riverina and saved a woman’s life by intervening in a nightclub brawl. In return he was called a liar and denied treatment with which, despite the severity of his injuries, he could have returned to work within nine months. I can speak about Geoffrey. He has had his impairment repeatedly disputed and information withheld. His location—800 kilometres from Sydney—has been exploited as a means of delaying his claim and making it nearly impossible for him to access treatment.

Were it not for the time limit on private members’ statements I could go on telling these tragic stories of injured people and the treatment they receive from insurers. After hearing so many of these tales since the Government introduced the Act, when an injured worker enters my office I am now able to describe to them the experiences they have had before they even open their mouths. It boils down to three words: “Delay”, “misplaced” and “avoid”. The time limits imposed now make it a war of attrition where the insurance companies win by delaying, knowing that the time will eventually come when they can move the injured worker off the scheme.

The result is broken people. They have been ground down time and again. Some write to me to continue their fight; others give up. Some contemplate suicide and unfortunately people with whom I have sat are no longer with us because they have committed suicide as a result of their workers compensation journey. Take a moment to consider one victim, a migrant who came through a tour in Afghanistan unscathed, only to sustain a spinal injury whilst working in a nursing home. He speaks of suicide, not because of his war experience but because of his experience of the workers compensation system. The situation is appalling, it needs to be addressed and fixed.