Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

9th July 1999 - This Time It's Personal; Injury, That Is

Copyright © 1999 Russell Brown

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well, the Prime Minister didn't do anything stupid this week. In fact, she mainly stayed indoors, emerging only to slate the bastard Americans' stone-age decision to put both quotas and tariffs on our lamb exports.

We will now, along with Australia, take it to the World Trade Organisation. The moral high ground will offer no guarantee there. The US government has a great deal of legal firepower, and has made a habit of winning WTO cases in the face of natural justice.

There will be more than that on the minds of the Nats at their annual conference this weekend in Wellington. They will gather to mull over what to do about a government that just can't seem to get any traction. Treasurer Bill English has already signalled what he'll do - a promise of tax cuts for the faithful.

You can also expect to hear at least one hysterical tirade about Labour's ACC policy. Labour this week affirmed that it will overturn National's workplace accident reforms if and when it becomes the government later this year.

The ushering in of private insurers is brought to you by the same people who brought you the electricity reforms, the Tourism Board and that miracle of modern planning, the introduction of the new driver's licensing system. Only this time it's personal: injury, that is.

I freely admit I've been pretty much ignoring the bales of large and colourful literature people have been sending through the mail to me for the last few months. Another journalist, Sandra Coney, being an intellectual and all, did try and engage the system. Her column in last weekend's Sunday Star Times was hair-raising, basically. It sounds horrible.

Which means that reversing the changes could be horrible too, perhaps even more so. This is the problem.

The National government sidelined Ruth Richardson and turned the massively wasteful - but ever so competitive - Regional Health Authorities back into a single funding agency. They're still trying to close the loop on a process that has wasted tens of millions of dollars.

But no one has ever actually renationalised something. It's freaky - as the big-haired woman from the insurance industry pointed out in apocalyptic terms on Holmes this week. But Pajero Woman did protest too much, methinks. Two thirds of ACC is still right where it always was anyway. Half the country's employers haven't even chosen one of the new private prividers. And my compunctions about inconveniencing the insurance industry are strictly limited.

But this issue is likely to nag Labour right through to polling day, and it will be a serious test of Ruth Dyson's presentational skills. With all due respect, Labour needs a Mike Moore to shepherd this one. Unfortunately for them, it looks like he really will get that WTO job.

So why should anyone bother turning back these reforms now they're done? Because it's important and because, for all its faults, universal no-fault accident compensation is something too good to lose.

I'm not coming at this from an ideological point of view. I just think these reforms are going to be a bad thing for me, and for most people. From what I can tell, they will only benefit the fairly small number of large employers - including the government itself - who really have some negotiating power.

Apart from the ability to go directly to an acupuncturist or an osteopath instead of being rubber-stamped by a GP, there's nothing in this for employees. For me, as someone who does a bit of freelance work, it's a worrying pain in the butt. And I know for a fact that some good, honest, National-voting capitalists are starting to get the fear about this too.

Basically, it's all fun and games under they start telling you which doctor you can go to. And make no mistake, that is what will happen. "Managed care", where your insurer makes the decisions about your healthcare, is the glint in the eye of these insurance companies. Managed care is scary. You don't want it to happen here.

National has basically been priming ACC for just such expectations in the last couple of years - we've seen the pet OOS doctors, and an increasingly litigious insurer challenging more claims than ever.

That culture goes to a whole new level now - and should you wish to argue the point when your boss's insurance company disputes your claim, you're shit out of luck. Under changes built into the new system by National, you have a maximum of $300 available to get a lawyer and fight your case. Good luck, citizen.

Then there's pressure from employers on their workers not to claim compensation, which the regulation accompanying these reforms does not - and cannot - cover.

You may find that your employer gives you the hard word not to make an accident claim - because every claim goes onto what the industry calls your employer's "experience rating" and determines premiums.

A recent study by the US National Institute for Safety and Health found that more and more workers are opting to go through their employers' group health schemes - the company doctor - rather than making workers' compensation claims because they fear being blacklisted. And if the company doctor says you can work, you'd better work, right?

This is no joke. Private investigation businesses across the US now offer to "screen" job applicants for prior workers' compensation claims. You'd better hope our Privacy Act's as good as they say it is, hadn't you?

So is the new system efficient? Are you joking? ACC has been paying out 90% of premiums in compensation. The guess here is that the private insurers will take 40% for their own costs and pay out about 60% - this is pretty much exactly the figure in the US.

In this light, it's absolutely certain the premiums will go up. The proportion of the total payroll taken by such schemes in the US is well down from a peak of 2.4% in 1994, but it's reckoned to be about to cycle up again.

The US insurers are also currently actually making more money off the booming US stock market than from premiums at the moment - an option not open to those here.

Remember that National has already bumped up costs by changing ACC's funding model, and that ACC would, according to its chief executive, have been able to cut employer levies by up to 20% by the end of this year. The unlamented Deborah Morris might regard the three-month scramble in which these reforms were put together as her enduring legacy to the nation, but we should be suspicious.

Anyway, I see Norm Withers has achieved sufficient signatures on his petition for a Citizen's Initiated Referendum on longer minimum sentences for violent offenders. It'll probably be built into the year's general election. Oh goody.

There won't be a public education campaign on this one; no one will attempt to present the arguments or the evidence each way. People will vote according to their prejudices. Lock 'em up. It might not do any good, it might do more harm than good, but it's a nice easy answer.

Worse yet, Withers' referendum comes on top of the proposal by that creepy old lady Margaret Robertson for the number of MPs to be reduced to 99. If they are both bundled into this year's general election, that's 4.4 million extra votes to count -completely buggering it up in the process. Forget a meaningful result before bedtime.

Anyway on a cheerier note - Garment of the year - the funky possum-fur hats issued this week to Queenstown policepeople on the cold days. Very nice. Perhaps we could get Puff Daddy to wear one in one of his music videos and the possum problem would be solved in a jiffy.

It's a cheery thought in troubled times. I've been a bit off colour all week, actually. Nerves. The new, improved All Black side faces the real test - the old foe, in fact - this weekend at Carisbrook. Basically, if we can't beat South Africa by heaps, it's back to the drawing board.

New Zealand and South Africa are currently level in terms of test wins against each other. This test, the return fixture in South Africa and a likely clash at the World Cup will decide the winner not just for the year but for the century. We so have to win this, it hurts.

Some of us, of course will be watching keenly not only for top-notch play, but for yet another batch of Murrayisms. Murray Mexted once again welcomed us into his bizarre inner life in the preamble to the test against the French.

As Sir Howard Morrison laboured his way though the national anthem, Murray yelped: "Sends a tingle up the spine - a tingle in the loins!" and then the word "Cock!" as a French rooster wandered onto the paddock. In the post match debrief he held forth about "the security of having a man up your bottom".

Breathtaking. Right up with Murray classics like:

"He's looking for some meaningful penetration in the backline."

"You don't like to see hookers going down on players like that."

"He's running across field calling out come inside me."

"Everybody knows I've been pumping Martin Leslie for a couple of years now"

And of course, the all-time great Murrayism: "It's hard sometimes when there's other men coming up your bottom."

Amazing. What will he say this weekend? We can but sit comfortably and wait -


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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