Politics Research — 08 December 2016

The federal government is cracking down on claims from public servants seeking workers’ compensation for psychological conditions including “adjustment disorder”, rejecting most of them and fighting appeals.

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Figures obtained by The Australian show that, having a few years ago accepted nearly two-thirds of “mental disease” claims, the government is now rejecting two-thirds of them.

Over the past five years, the figures show, mental disease cases involving federal public servants have accounted for only 14 per cent of the total number of successful worker’s compensation claims but 43 per cent of the costs, with payouts for psychological damage totalling an average of $119 million a year out of a total average of $273m a year.

The average cost over the past five years of a mental disease claim was $305,300, with psychological claims far more expensive than physical disease or injury claims because they involve more time out of the workforce or total incapacity. The federal public service’s workers compensation insurer, Comcare, has been fighting cases in the quasi-judicial Administrative Appeals Tribunal when federal employees have sought a review after having their claims for workplace-caused adjustment disorder knocked back.

Among cases heard by the AAT, one public servant claimed he had developed adjustment disorder — defined by psychiatrists as short-term anxiety or depression caused by a specific event or situation — after his supervisor told a joke he found ­offensive and he was later counselled for allegedly being aggressive towards his boss and some colleagues.

Another case Comcare fought in the AAT involved a public servant who claimed she had developed adjustment disorder because her supervisors had not provided a good return-to-work plan after she developed repetitive strain injury. She had years earlier said she acquired adjustment disorder after a change in floor plan meant she had people working behind her.

Canberra lawyer and former senior public servant David Lander said it had become known in legal circles that the Coalition government had in recent years instructed the public service to adopt a “get tough” approach to compensation claims.

“Since the government changed hands from Labor to the Coalition, there has been a policy saying ‘we are to oppose claims’ to get the cost of compensation down,” Mr Lander said.

He claimed Comcare would regularly commission “hired-gun doctors” who would provide evidence suggesting a claimant’s complaint was non-existent or exaggerated.

In the year ended August 2013, Comcare received 882 claims for worker’s compensation in the category headed “mental disease”, and accepted 540 of them, or 62 per cent. In the 12 months ended August this year, the government insurer accepted only 223 out of 642 such claims, or 34 per cent.

A Comcare spokesman said a variety of factors affected the ­acceptance rate, including new interpretations of the law.

“Comcare is also putting significant effort into improving claims management practices and this is delivering a more robust, effective and fair decision-making process,” he said.

Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd said it was only to be expected that federal government agencies would carefully scrutinise claims to eliminate bogus ones.

This piece was first published on ‘The Australian’, on 23 November, 2016.

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