Watchdog Pushed to Probe WSIB; Medical Advice From Doctors Routinely Ignored, Advocates say

Sara Mojtehedzadeh
The Toronto Star , Jan. 29,

Citing “systematic disregard” for professional medical assessments of injured workers, advocates have asked Ontario’s government watchdog to launch an investigation into the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

The 200-page submission made Friday to the provincial ombudsman by health professionals, workers, lawyers and labour groups blasts WSIB for ignoring the medical advice provided by doctors treating injured workers in favour of so-called “paper doctors” who have not met patients directly.

The resulting clawbacks in medical benefits are having a “devastating effect,” the submission says.

That effect has left workers who have severe physical and mental problems stranded in poverty.

“That’s why the complaint is being filed today,” said Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

“Injured workers and their advocates have been sounding the alarm for well over 20 years about workers’ compensation that ignores the advice of treating physicians and kicks desperate injured workers off their benefits.”

“It’s a regular occurrence that you send medical evidence that is never acknowledged,” added psychologist Dr. Giorgio Ilacqua, who has worked in the field since 1985, including a stint as a consultant for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), formerly known as the Workmen’s Compensation Board.

The Star has previously reported on allegations that WSIB fired a doctor for refusing to reverse her medical assessment of an injured patient.

In response to those allegations and an ensuing report by the Ontario Federation of Labour about WSIB ignoring medical advice, the board said in a November statement that it “values the relationships it has with thousands of health-care practitioners across the province and relies on their professionalism and expertise.”

More than 20 medical professionals contributed evidence to Friday’s submission to the provincial ombudsman, drawing on 41 case studies involving injured patients.

Marvin Mulder, 46, is one such worker. He says his doctor’s medical advice to WSIB was ignored after the former mover from Hamilton severely injured his back on the job in 2010. Mulder underwent six spinal injections and two failed back surgeries in an effort to recover.

He says WSIB asked him to participate in its work transition program almost immediately after his accident, giving him the option to retrain as either a millwright or an office assistant – even though his injuries prevent him from sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time.

Mulder says persistent health problems prevented him from completing the retraining program. His specialist wrote to the board to say he was physically unable to continue. In response, Mulder says, WSIB deemed him “non-co-operative” and drastically reduced his benefits last year. “It’s devastated me and my family,” he told the Star.

He now relies on disability support and Canada Pension Plan benefits to survive. He says CPP has approved him for benefits available to workers with a demonstrable “severe and prolonged disability” even though WSIB clawed them back.

“The overall effect is that the injured workers are being re-victimized by the very system that was actually created to help them,” said Aidan MacDonald, of the Injured Workers’ Consultants legal clinic.

The submission to Ontario’s government watchdog argues that reduced coverage through employer-funded workplace insurance means workers often have little choice but to rely on publicly funded health care and social assistance programs.

“It’s a huge strain on those programs, which at this point is needless. WSIB was designed to be a safety net. For far too long, employers are getting off the hook,” Buckley said.

“We’re hoping a systemic investigation and consequences from the ombudsman can start to shift the system back to an actual compensation system that treats injured workers with dignity and respect,” MacDonald added.

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