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Changes on the horizon for Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation system?

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In March 2016, the Government of Alberta launched a formal review of the workers’ compensation system and established an independent panel to examine the system and make recommendations. The panel received feedback from the public and held various consultation sessions with injured workers, safety associations and several other interested parties. The panel completed its review earlier this year and submitted its final report to the Ministry of Labour. That report was recently released and can be accessed on the Government of Alberta’s website here.

The panel’s report noted that while there are clearly many issues with the workers’ compensation system, overall, it continues to be valued by both workers and employers. Both sides generally continue to see it as a preferable alternative to litigation. However, the report pointed out that while most claims are dealt with relatively well, more complex claims often give rise to considerable issues, causing frustration to all parties. The most significant issue with the system is not the level of benefits, but rather, the overall decision making process which is often viewed as preferring the efficient management of claims at the expense of assisting injured workers.

Interestingly, the panel found that both employers and workers seem generally unhappy with the system – workers feel that the system is in the employer’s “pocket”, while employers feel that the system favours workers. Reestablishing trust in the system is seen as a key goal.

The panel’s report includes 60 different recommendations, some to the legislation, others to policy or operations. The focus of the changes is towards a “worker-centered” system. Some of the key proposed changes highlighted in the report are:

  • The establishment of a new Fair Practices Office, independent of the WCB, similar to an ombudsman;
  • Increased assistance for workers and employers with reviews and appeals through an Office of the Appeals Advisor that is relocated from the WCB to the Fair Practices Office;
  • The use of a new roster system for independent medical examinations (IMEs), with responsibility for the roster residing with the Medical Panel Office, which is independent from the WCB;
  • Greater choice for injured workers in selecting health professionals, in addition to the choice they already have in selecting their treating physicians;
  • The establishment of an obligation to return workers to work, and a corollary obligation to cooperate on the part of workers;
  • The use of case conference models throughout the system, along with a system-wide commitment to seek early and collaborative resolution of any disputes that arise;
  • The adjustments of certain benefits provided by the system, with the specific aim of addressing areas where there is hardship, fatalities, permanent injuries of young workers, retirement benefits or people who are affected in dramatic ways by the current application of WCB policies; and
  • Further study or review of particularly complex aspects of the system.

Some of these recommendations, such as establishing an obligation to return injured workers to work, are controversial and it will be interesting to see which of these recommendations will ultimately be implemented.