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November 19, 2006
WCB 'rogue state'
Critics cite long list of problems from bungling payments
to internal bonus By JEREMY
LOOME, EDMONTON SUN
Politicians, injured workers and their advocates are
demanding the provincial government launch a public inquiry into Alberta's
Workers' Compensation Board.
And a former Alberta attorney general says the government
owes it to workers who may have been unfairly denied benefits to follow through
on its promise of a review tribunal.
A five-day series in the Sun that starts today (see pages
32 and 33) identifies numerous issues at the agency, including a policy of
withholding evidence from injured workers arguing their case; financial
bungling of workers' monthly payments; an internal bonus system that critics
say artificially accelerates the pace with which claims are rejected; and
callous treatment of the most vulnerable of injured workers.
The revelations should prompt a full review of the WCB's
operations and why vulnerable workers are angered at their treatment, said NDP
labour critic Ray Martin.
"Politicians call for public inquiries all the time,
perhaps too much because it hurts the case when one comes along that really
requires it," said NDP labour critic Ray Martin. "But we haven't had a case in
Alberta more in need of a public inquiry than this since the Principal Group"
"The WCB is operating like a rogue state within the Alberta
government. We've known for a long time about the complaints workers have had
with the board, but to see so much substantiated? Its behaviour is just
After previewing some of the Sun series, Liberal labour
critic Dan Backs called the WCB's operations "reprehensible. There should be a
full independent inquiry into the bonus system and the true facts need to come
The agency points to its stirling overall record as proof
it works. "The Workers' Compensation Board strives to make decisions that are
fair," said spokesman Jacqueline Varga.
"In 2005, 3,311 WCB claims (1.6%) were challenged out of
over 209,443 claims - each of which contains many decisions that could be the
subject of an appeal - administered in the year. Of those, 1,218 claims (0.6%)
were subsequently appealed to the external and impartial appeals commission."
Meanwhile, former Alberta Attorney General Jon Havelock
says nothing has changed since the government decided - based on two commission
findings - that contentiously denied claims back to 1998 need to be reviewed.
Havelock headed a 2001 task force to decide which cases
deserved to be heard. "It looks like they've addressed 50% of the issue but
that the new process does not deal with the contentious claims, so no question,
the government should deal with those," he said.
There are no plans for that to happen, confirmed Chris
Chodan, with Alberta Human Resources. "The minister continues to monitor the
system. He will determine whether additional steps are required," he said.
It took 20 years of appeals for local worker Ralph Teed to
get all the benefits he was due for his back injury. He's spent that time
advocating for other injured workers.
"We've got a serious problem within the social framework of
our society when people are crying out this loud, and with this much anger,"
"And the reaction from the board and from the government,
rather than fixing this problem, has been to protect themselves with immunity,
with legislative changes, with everything they can throw at it."
Edmonton lawyer Helmut Berndt echoed Teed's sentiment. Last
year, he concluded a three-year fight to protect a local woman's right to
choose her lawyer in a civil suit involving a third party not covered by the
The board had fought to be given the right to approve the
lawyer, force the lawyer to sign a retainer and to control the disbursement of
"If she wants to have her own counsel look after her claim
why should she be treated any differently than the rest of Alberta, just
because she happens to have had access to WCB benefits for a short period,
until they cut her off?
"The WCB had decided that my client only required roughly
six months of income replacement. In the court litigation that has commenced,
we claim she will never go back to work. So the question becomes, how is it
possible for the WCB, having made the determination that the worker can only
receive six months' benefit and can go back to work, to then stand in court and
argue this person should receive a lifetime of benefits? They can't."
Six months after losing the case, the government amended
legislation, giving the WCB control in such situations.
"With respect to the Gutierrez case, the WCB pursued this
case to clarify its authority to deal with lawsuits for workplace injuries. The
Alberta Court of Appeal ultimately resolved those issues in its decision, which
ruled that the WCB had the right to substantial control over the lawsuit.
Alberta legislation reflects that right," said Varga.