By Orlando Buonastella and Kathrin Furniss, Injured Workers Consultants.
Injured workers and supporters will rally at Queen’s Park on June 1, Injured Workers’ Day, to challenge the most recent scandal involving the workers’ compensation board.
Recently, the mainstream media discovered something injured workers had been warning about all along. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) is systematically ignoring the opinion of injured workers’ treating doctors and health care providers. This has ignited the phone lines of radio shows and has resulted in several follow-up stories about the WSIB’s callous treatment of injured workers. This is not a surprise to our community. Yet it has shaken Ontario’s consciousness in a new way.
In reality, the scandal around the WSIB systematically ignoring treating doctors, something we call medical claims suppression, is just the tip of the iceberg. It is in fact a symptom of the Board’s wider obsession with improving its financial position, which it is successfully doing, on the backs of injured workers.
Medical claims suppression is the tip of the iceberg
Most people were not aware of the extent to which injured workers are being mistreated by the WSIB. This may be due to the rosy, but inaccurate, picture being painted by the WSIB and the provincial government. They say the WSIB’s finances are in wonderful shape, while at the same time, the services for and the health of injured workers is also improving! Apparently, the WSIB is working some miracles over on Front Street.
But that rosy picture is starting to show some cracks. The scandal around the WSIB systematically ignoring doctors has revealed much more extensive problems. The WSIB’s finances are only improving because injured workers have been attacked on all fronts: reduced claims entitlement, premature return to work, blaming pre-existing conditions, denying permanent impairments, and so on. The WSIB reached its nadir of cruelty under the regime of David Marshall, who was President and CEO of the WSIB from 2010 to 2016. For some time now, the system has just been closing the books on injured workers and casting them aside and calling it an improvement.
This is borne out in the WSIB’s own statistics, contained in its 2015 Economic Statement. For example, that report cites a reduction of permanent impairment recognition for back injuries by over 80% between 2010 and 2015, and hails it as an improvement. The same document characterizes a reduction in the percentage of injured workers with a recognized permanent impairment from 12.7% to 5.8% from 2009 to 2015 as a performance improvement. All told, these and other so-called improvements have led to an $800 million annual reduction in benefits being paid to injured workers! In our view, the WSIB’s improved statistics come from its implementation of the dramatic cutbacks recommended by KPMG’s 2010 unabashedly pro-business report. In other words, they reflect an increase in claims denial rather than improved outcomes in worker’s health and safety. It is notable that there has been no similar dramatic drop in the number of fatal claims. Fatal claims cannot be easily hidden or explained away…
In addition to ignoring medical evidence, these improvements have been facilitated by changes to the Board’s internal policies that make it easier to deny claims, such as blaming age or pre-existing conditions. Return to Work programs have also facilitated these improvements, with an increasing number of workers deemed able to return to work when in reality they cannot. Unfortunately, this means many workers are considered to earn wages from jobs they do not have.
Retiring the unfunded liability on the backs of injured workers
Medical claims suppression and other claims minimization initiatives are in fact symptoms of a wider systemic problem: the Board’s obsession with speedily reducing its unfunded liability (UFL), the difference between future obligations to injured workers and the money currently on hand to pay for that. While the problem of the UFL can be traced back to the decisions of people in power, it is injured workers who are paying the price.
Under the leadership of former Premier Mike Harris, employer assessment rates were lowered by 30%. The unfunded liability grew quickly because employers were no longer paying their share of injury costs. Had the Harris government not reduced employer assessment rates, the UFL would have been gone by 2006. Instead, the 2008 global economic crisis made it worse.
Panicked about the UFL, the McGuinty government passed Bill 135, a law to eliminate the UFL within prescribed time limits. At the time, the government unequivocally promised that, “full funding will not be achieved on the backs of injured workers” This was a welcomed promise, but our past experience made us wary.
Who benefits once more? Employers do!
The WSIB recently announced that the UFL was getting so low, and WSIB expenditures were also so low, that employer premium rates would be reduced at a level that would have been unthinkable even by the Harris Tories. As of 2018, employers will benefit from rate cuts amounting to $2 billion annually! This is an insult and a grave injustice to injured workers.
Injured workers did not agree to be sacrificed for corporate profits, but they have been. One would expect that once the UFL is dealt with, that those who sacrificed would see the restoration of their mandated losses. In other words, injured workers should see a return to the pre-Marshall policies and practices. Unfortunately, this is not on the agenda. Instead, employers will reap the benefits at the expense of injured workers.
And it gets worse. The proposed premium rate reductions for employers will effectively make the Marshall cuts permanent. Once there is a rate cut, benefits will be administered in a way that reflects the reduced revenue coming into the system, and the employer lobby will fight tooth and nail to keep their rates down.
The official position of the WSIB has been that the UFL is not being retired on the backs of injured workers. Trust injured workers, it is. This shameful agenda must be exposed and reversed.
Recommending a way forward
There is still time to fix the problem. It will require meaningful and swift change. The cuts injured workers have suffered should be reversed and no rate cut should benefit employers.
Here are some immediate reversals that should take place:
- Respect treating health care providers and abide by their recommendations.
- Reverse the changes to WSIB policy made under David Marshall’s regime.
- A complete overhaul of WSIB employee and management training so that their understanding of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (including regulations and policies made thereunder) respects the original intent of this remedial legislation designed to help injured workers.
- Return the integrity and accessibility of the claims and appeals departments. Case managers and appeal officers should listen to workers and make fair decisions.
- Reject any rate reduction to employers and restore the rates cut by the Harris government.
- Move swiftly to universal coverage so that all workers in Ontario are covered by the workers’ compensation system (Ontario has one of Canada’s lowest coverage rates).
- Eliminate the WSIB’s experience rating programs and stop the implementation of the Rate Framework Modernization, which rewards employers for suppressing and minimizing worker’s compensation claims.