Six deaths since more than 3000 lost workers compensation benefits
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Six deaths since more than 3000 lost workers compensation benefits

Six people have died since more than 3000 lost their weekly workers compensation benefits over Christmas, raising questions about the harshness of a scheme that is $2 billion in surplus.

Carmel Donnelly, chief executive officer for State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA), told a budget estimates committee hearing on Monday that her agency was notified of 375 injured workers who were potentially at risk of self harm over the past 12 months. There were 13 cases of actual self harm.

Of the 3448 who had lost their weekly payments since Christmas, six had died. The cause of the six deaths have not yet been confirmed. One person who died had been previously reported to police as being at risk of self harm.

NSW Minister for Finance, Services and Property Victor Dominello.

NSW Minister for Finance, Services and Property Victor Dominello. Credit:Orlando Chiodo

Reports of the deaths have come as an internal government document obtained by NSW Labor reveals the state insurance regulator had anticipated that its policy may result in self harm or even death.

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Under changes to the workers compensation scheme introduced in 2012, thousands of injured workers including many who were otherwise entitled to lifetime benefits lost their weekly payments after five years if their injury was assessed as not being above 20 per cent whole-person impairment. Many have been unable to return to work because of the impact of their injury.

"Our experience is that permanent impairment measure is not a measure of disability and people who are assessed at not being more than 20 per cent are often unable to return to work as a result of their injury," Workers Compensation independent review officer Kim Garling said.

A briefing paper prepared for NSW Minister for Finance Victor Dominello states that two people who were affected by the policy outlined under section 39 of the Workers Compensation Act 1987, had died.

The document from the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation says SIRA prepared a plan on December 15 "to respond to any potential serious incidents involving an injured worker in the s39 cohort or to events representing a risk to SIRA's operations or reputation". The plan included a 24-hour counselling service and a draft press release for the minister conveying his sympathies and inability to "comment further" on any deaths.

Ms Donnelly said SIRA was carefully monitoring the implementation of section 39.

"With the six fatalities we do not have a conclusion about cause of death," she said. "They are not necessarily in the cohort of the reported vulnerable workers, so the analysis is at quite an early stage to understand whether or not there is anything, apart from what you would normally see in regard to fatalities in any group of people."

NSW Labor MP Clayton Barr, who obtained the internal government document under freedom of information laws, said he was concerned it showed that of hundreds of injured workers had been identified as "vulnerable" and some had reportedly harmed themselves since being cut off weekly benefits.

Labor spokesman for Finance, Services and Property Clayton Barr.

Labor spokesman for Finance, Services and Property Clayton Barr.Credit:Marina Neil

Greens MP David Shoebridge said cutting the benefits of people who could not return to work was "plain cruel".

“My office continues to be contacted by distressed workers, who are suffering from disabling injuries and have had their workers compensation payments stopped," Mr Shoebridge said.

“They have nowhere to turn, they feel as though they have been thrown on the scrapheap and many are dealing with real poverty. Injured workers can’t be treated like liabilities or numbers, their lives matter and they need to be supported for as long as necessary to deal with the effects of their injuries."

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.Credit:Darren Pateman

Mr Dominello said his agency had been advised of six fatalities among the cohort of injured workers affected by the section 39 provisions.

"This is a very sensitive matter and we will be guided by the Coroner’s recommendations and findings regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of these individuals," he said.

"The State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) has been working closely with insurers to ensure workers affected by section 39 are supported in their transition off weekly payments.

"SIRA has a dedicated telephone service available to workers, employers, insurers and other stakeholders who require additional guidance and support. Specialists are on hand to provide tailored support depending on individual needs and circumstances.

"Every attempt is being made to ensure workers are supported in their effort to return to the workforce."

Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14 or beyondblue 1300 224 636.

Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter. Her reports on inequity in schools funding led to the Gonski reforms and won her national awards. Her coverage of health exposed unnecessary patient deaths at Campbelltown Hospital and led to judicial and parliamentary inquiries. At The Times of London, she exposed flaws in international medical trials.