Letter signed by more than 140 doctors, legal clinics, and labour groups, expresses deep concern about injured workers who are increasingly unable to get the treatment their doctors recommend.
By SARA MOJTEHEDZADEHWork and Wealth reporter, The Star
5:00 AM, Fri., June 10, 2016
Dramatic changes to health-care services for injured workers, including a 40 per cent funding drop in rehabilitative treatment and a 30 per cent drop in drug benefit spending, is having a “devastating” impact on some of the province’s most vulnerable citizens, according to a letter obtained by the Star.
The letter, to be delivered Friday to senior Ontario government figures and signed by more than 140 doctors, legal clinics and labour groups, expresses deep concern about injured workers who are increasingly unable to get the treatment their doctors recommend because of significant health-care changes at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The letter claims that shift is designed by the board to cut costs at the expense of injured workers.
“We only have one body,” said Indira Rupchand, 56, who hurt her back three years ago on a manufacturing production line. “If we are hurt at work, I think we deserve to be treated with dignity and get the treatment that is recommended. Many times we are railroaded.”
The board has moved away from relying on the medical advice of injured workers’ own doctors in favour of opinions provided by physicians in specialty clinics contracted by the WSIB, according to the letter. The board has doubled its spending on such clinics over the past 10 years.
WSIB has responded to criticisms of its health services, including a formal complaint to Ontario’s ombudsman by injured worker advocates, by saying that it has “confidence in the integrity of Ontario’s health-care professionals” and that it “acts quickly to ensure workers receive timely, specialized medical care.”
But critics say specialty clinics’ treatment programs often push injured workers back on the job before they are ready and set unrealistic recovery dates. Workers’ benefits are frequently cut off according to those recovery timelines, without the board ever following up with the worker or their doctor about their health.
“It turns the focus away from health care and toward a date,” said Maryth Yachnin, a lawyer with the Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO).
Meanwhile, the board has cut its spending on drug benefits by close to 30 per cent since 2009, according to the letter. Funding for services like physiotherapy and psychological treatment provided by doctors not affiliated with the board also plummeted by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2014. That statistic was obtained by IAVGO through a freedom of information request.
Such rehabilitative services are often vital for real, long-term recovery, Yachnin says, and are frequently recommended by injured workers’ own doctors — only to be ignored by the board.
“(Workers) feel like they are coming up against a wall when they’re trying to get services that will actually help them recover,” she told the Star. “They don’t listen to workers’ doctors and specialists.”
When it comes to the WSIB’s own specialty clinics, the board is “setting the terms and conditions of what the (clinics) reports are providing,” she added. “They set out the specific way they want doctors to frame their answers . . . the answers are generally not as candid as you might see from the workers’ (own) doctors in our experience.”
Questions about the WSIB’s health-care provision have already been raised: as reported by the Star, a Hamilton-area doctor is currently suing the board and one of its private health-services contractors, claiming she was terminated after delivering a medical opinion that did not suit the WSIB.
After injuring her back in 2013, Rupchand says she received just a couple of physiotherapy sessions through one of the WSIB’s specialty clinics before being told to start working again. The stress of working while still injured was the start of a downward spiral, according to the Toronto-area resident who says she has since contemplated suicide as a result of her ordeal, and is currently separated from her kids.
“All this is a systematic thing with injured workers,” said Rupchand, who is helping to organize a day of action on Friday to raise awareness about the issue. “I’ve heard people going through this so many times.”
“It’s causing a lot of stress. I’m a single mother and it’s hard. That’s why I’m still feeling pain and that’s why it’s so important that the WSIB listens to treating doctors,” she added.
“As injured workers, they don’t believe us. I was never believed.”
With files from Jacques Gallant