Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Money blinds ACC to principles

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The Employment Law Experts group says claimants get worn down by the ACC machine.  Photo / Getty Images
The Employment Law Experts group says claimants get worn down by the ACC machine. Photo / Getty Images

ACC Minister Judith Collins says the Government wants to restore public trust and confidence in ACC. This comes in the wake of the Bronwyn Pullar affair, which saw the ritual sacrificing of several ACC heads last week, including chairman John Judge.

But maybe it's ACC that needs to trust more. As former National Party president Michelle Boag argued on 60 Minutes last week, ACC's culture problem is that "they treat all their clients as potential fraudsters".

"They sometimes refuse to accept the facts about people," she said. "They are constantly trying to disallow people. I know there are people who rort the system, we see that all the time, but not everybody is rorting the system.

"And when you look at the fact they'd spent nine years trying to get Bronwyn [Pullar] to work fulltime when she can't - look at the man hours involved in that. Look at the effort."

They sound a lot like Work and Income. Claimants and their advocates have long complained about ACC's culture of "disentitlement" and a "faceless, uncaring corporation".

In 2010, the Herald received about 400 complaints from claimants who felt they'd been unfairly denied coverage; many of them had their claims reversed on appeal.

But, ironically, the most telling blow has been struck by a former National Party activist and her friend Boag. Pullar is a serious adversary, even with a brain injury. A former businesswoman, she seems as obsessive and distrustful as anyone would be who's been consumed by a protracted war with a Government behemoth.

She keeps records of everything; she uses sophisticated software to show who accesses her ACC file and how often. And she records meetings and holds on to the files of thousands of ACC claimants sent to her in error.

She seems to have good reasons for her lack of trust given email correspondence in which an ACC staffer she'd never met described her as having a "narcissistic personality disorder" and wrote that she'd "fleeced ACC for 7 years".

In a clear breach of ethics, he'd discussed Pullar with an assessor who was supposed to be independent, and accessed her file multiple times despite being taken off her case.

Both Pullar and Boag have copped harsh criticism. But however clumsily they pursued Pullar's case, and whatever the merits of her claim, the real issue, as the Employment Law Experts group argues, "is the many thousands of claimants who are treated like Bronwyn Pullar, or worse. Many of those people become worn down by the ACC 'machine' to the point where they just give up ... When broken people languish on sickness benefits for years and years because they can't get the help they need, we all lose, both economically and from a humanitarian point of view."

That Pullar, with her high-powered connections, has had to resort to increasingly desperate measures, shows how hard it is for most claimants to make any headway.

"It's very complex," Pullar told 60 Minutes reporter Melanie Read. "It's a medical-legal argument and unless you are physically and mentally, emotionally and financially able to fight it, you won't win."

Judith Collins promises a culture change but it's not clear how different her culture will be from her predecessor's as minister, Nick Smith.

Before he became a casualty of Pullar's nine-year war with ACC, Smith had gone to a lot of trouble to convince everyone that ACC was so broken and broke that it needed urgent and radical surgery.

That seemed to involve carving off the best bits of ACC to feed a ravenous insurance industry, and cutting genuine claimants off at the knees (if they still had any). As one amputee found, not even the loss of a limb spared her from being referred to in derogatory terms and treated shabbily.

As a senior ACC manager noted in a leaked presentation, a pendulum swing since 2009 under the current Government and board leadership had seen a focus on "value for money and where we could achieve savings".

John Key told TV3's The Nation at the weekend that John Judge had done everything the Government had asked of him. He'd presided over a corporation that banked a surplus in excess of $3.5 billion in 2010/11.

So it doesn't seem likely that anything will change. Collins' comments about privacy and information security being top priorities for ACC, and the need for staff to use more appropriate language in their communications, seem almost willfully off-beam.

It's clear that ACC's issues arise from a fundamental disconnection between the philosophy that underpinned its original social intent - for which we New Zealanders gave up our right to sue - and the commercial creature it has become.

In a speech last year, Sir Owen Woodhouse, the architect of the accident compensation scheme, argued that the ACC's original purpose was being ignored "by those who imagine the ACC is merely commercial insurance under another name".

ACC and the principles that underpinned it had unanimous support when it was created in 1974. If we are to abandon its social welfare intent for a commercial one, it should be a matter for national debate.

- NZ Herald

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