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A decision by the Victorian Government has recognised the challenges long term injured workers face finding work and how much of a disadvantage they are at currently competing with thousands of other workers in the time of COVID-19, writes Rachel Schutze

THE COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020 passed. The legislation “implements a range of temporary emergency measures to support Victorians and continue delivering the services we all rely on”.

The legislation in part, “gives long-term injured workers due to transition off weekly WorkCover payments, but who can’t return to or find work due to their injury, up to six extra months of weekly WorkCover payments”. The legislation is backdated and will apply to all persons on WorkCover who have received notice of the termination of their payments from 1 December 2019.

This week’s decision by the Victorian Government recognised the challenges long term injured workers face finding work and how much of a disadvantage they are at currently competing with thousands of other workers in the time of COVID-19 for employment opportunities.

COVID-19 has affected all of us.

Injured workers in receipt of WorkCover entitlements have faced additional challenges because of COVID-19 in accessing compensation, their lump sum claims and having treatment approved.

Injured workers who require surgery, long term physiotherapy or pain management for example must have their treating medical practitioner request permission from the insurer to obtain approval for the treatment.

The insurers will often send the injured worker to an Independent Medical Examiner to obtain a medical opinion as to whether the treatment is reasonable and necessary before approving it.

At present many of these appointments are being cancelled by the Examiners who are concerned about their health and the health of the injured worker in the time of COVID-19. In circumstances where many of the Examiners are over the age of 60 and were vulnerable by virtue of their age, this was not a surprise.

What did surprise me however was how many clients in Geelong and South West Victoria we’re cancelling these appointments.

After investigating why, what has become clear is that a significant issue for Geelong and South West Victorian clients is that they felt they were doing wrong by driving to Melbourne or often to the other side of Melbourne to attend these appointments.

Alternatively, clients who have difficulty driving for extended periods of time may take public transport to these appointments and did not feel safe from COVID-19 using public transport or taxis for more than an hour at this time.

For Melbourne-based clients this has not had the same concerns as travelling for a much shorter time made attendance easier.

The effect of Geelong and regional clients not attending these appointments is that they will have delayed access to compensation or lump sum compensation or medical treatment, surgery or rehabilitation as their claims or the insurer’s decisions will be suspended until an appointment with an examiner is attended.

The notion that regional clients are at a disadvantage or have less access to compensation or medical treatment is heartbreaking. Unfortunately however it is not a new issue for injured workers in regional Victoria. It is a longstanding issue which has become prominent again in light of COVID-19.

In 2013 I wrote an opinion piece for this paper in which I said, “This travel is an unnecessary burden on people who are already injured and in pain.

To add insult to injury it is not economically efficient for the WorkCover scheme. It cannot possibly be saving the system money.

Why can’t the insurers organise for the examinations to be conducted in regional hubs such as Geelong, Colac, Warrnambool, Horsham and Portland?

Why isn’t it the Examiners who are required to travel to these regional centres to examine injured workers?

I understand and respect that one of the pillars of WorkSafe is to ensure financial responsibility and the continued financial viability of the scheme….

It cannot possibly be financially prudent to pay the travel expenses of eight or more workers, which is how many could easily be seen by an examiner in one day, rather than the travel expenses of an examiner and the cost of room hire”.

The legislation passed this week by the Victorian Government showed a kindness and understanding of the effects on workers of injury and the ramifications for their long term employment opportunities.

It would be wonderful to see this extend to assisting regional workers easier access to Independent Medical Examiners both in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.

Rachel Schutze is a Principal at Gordon Legal, wife and mother of three. [Ed’s note: Ms Schutze is married to Corio MP Richard Marles]

This article originally appeared in the Geelong Advertiser

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