John Judge, chairman of the Accident Compensation Corporation, vented some steam after a parliamentary select committee last week about this newspaper's exposure of claims being rejected by ACC as degenerative conditions. Mr Judge called the articles "grossly ignorant" and said: "You find people that have got rather inane claims that have been denied and put them in the paper as if they're true, not giving the ACC time to respond, not making sure that the claimants give us permission to respond ..."
The broadside was peculiar. The series was published more than a year ago and it was successful in proving ACC had, without fanfare, changed the way it treated claims by the injured. The corporation held an internal review of its rejection of elective surgery claims and in May last year it admitted it had been too tough. But the chairman's outburst is timely because it appears ACC's rejection rate remains high, and today we return to the issue, inviting more recently injured people to tell us their stories so readers may see whether we are getting any better deal.
Among rejections revealed in the previous series was the case of a 59-year-old who fell off a ladder while clearing leaves from his roof. He suffered injuries to his buttock, shoulder, and neck. The only "inane" part of that claim was ACC's response. It rejected the claim on the basis of its medical adviser's view that it was "a degenerative condition rendered symptomatic following an accident".
A pharmacy manager was told her flat feet were to blame when she tripped on stairs while carrying a box of medicine and snapped a tendon in her left ankle.
All told, we heard about 400 cases last time. Many of them had been successful on appeal to a judge, but critics suspected ACC was banking on a high proportion of rejected claimants giving up and going away to pay for elective surgery themselves, if they could, or just bearing the pain.
Nearly all of those rejected as degenerative conditions were aged in their late 50s or older. Naturally, their tissue was degenerating but they have paid taxes to ACC for 40 years as compulsory insurance against the sort of accidents described to us.
Some cases involved those too young to "degenerate". ACC, like any insurance company, has an obligation to those who pay its premiums as well as to those who make claims on it. It must scrutinise claims carefully to keep its costs under control. Some critics believe that since ACC is a state monopoly it need not be as rigorous as private insurance, but that view is not held here. The national interest lies in keeping all costs in the economy at an efficient minimum.
The public interest also lies in being open and honest in public administration. Stonewalling accident victims, pretending no change had been made, and attacking the messenger were part of ACC's modus operandi. The signs from the current chairman are that not much has changed. The Herald was meticulous back then in putting cases to ACC and has proven that in detail to its communications people, yet all too often the response, like Mr Judge's, was to lash the messenger and, by implication, the victim.
The chairman made no apology to Parliament's committee for the continuing high rate of rejection of elective surgery claims and the rising number that were approved on appeal. He claimed the corporation's decisions were fair, affected relatively few claimants, and avoided a blowout in levies.
We, in turn, make no apology for bringing these cases to public attention again. We all have to pay ACC levies, and the public will be the ultimate judge of what is reasonable and fair and what is "grossly ignorant".