The head of the Victorian public service union says former premier John Cain “will be turning in his grave” after the government’s decision to limit workers’ compensation for some mental health injuries.
The premier, Daniel Andrews, on Friday announced sweeping changes to the state’s WorkCover scheme, including limiting support to workers who experience mental health issues such as burnout and stress to 13 weeks.
“If you make a [legitimate] stress claim, you’ll be provisionally approved, you’ll get 13 weeks of care and support, but we’re not going to have those claims moving into lifetime benefits,” he told reporters.
“This is still a very balanced scheme, a fair scheme and one that provides maximum support to those who need it … while [providing] pathways and a real sense of urgency to get back to work. That’s where people want to be – not at home, unwell and getting worse.”
Andrews said WorkCover will continue to support workers who make claims for mental injuries arising from workplace harassment, bullying and traumatic events, such as those experienced by frontline workers.
He described the scheme as “broken”, with the number of claims and their cost tripling since 2010. This is partially driven by mental injury claims – now representing 16% of new claims – which Andrews said was never envisaged when the scheme was first set up by the Cain Labor government in the mid-1980s.
“The nature of injury, the nature of illness and indeed the nature of work has profoundly changed since then,” he said.
“That’s why we’ve seen claims in this mental health space go from a very, very small number to what is predicted to be half the cost of the scheme in just the next six or seven years.”
Benefits paid to injured workers are also exceeding the premiums paid by business to fund the scheme by about $1.1bn a year.
New South Wales dissolved its WorkCover scheme and replaced it with the scandal-plagued iCare, after it ran up a deficit if $4bn.
The Victorian minister for WorkSafe, Danny Pearson, said that, without reform, the future of scheme could be in doubt.
Also among the changes announced was an increase to premiums paid by businesses – from 1.27% of their payroll to 1.8% – which will come into effect on 1 July. This is higher than the premiums in Queensland (1.23%) and NSW (1.48%), but lower than those in the ACT (2.22%) and Tasmania (2.03%).
The test for workers receiving weekly payments beyond two-and-a-half years will also be updated, with a “whole person impairment” rating of greater than 20% to be introduced.
The rating measures the level of permanent damage caused by a workplace injury, which is currently set at 35% in South Australia and 20% in NSW.
A new body, Return to Work Victoria, will also be established to help people re-enter the workforce.
The changes have been met with criticism.
The head of the Community and Public Sector Union’s Victorian branch, Karen Batt, said the government was undoing the reforms of Cain and could lead workers taking matters to court.
“These changes will only increase the likelihood that workers will return to seeking redress under common law, undoing 40 years of support along with all the principles of original legislation from 1985,” she said.
“John Cain will be turning in his grave.”
The secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Luke Hilakari, and the Victorian Chamber chief executive, Paul Guerra, stood together outside parliament to criticise the changes.
“When business and union stand together, you know this is a matter of importance for all Victorians,” Guerra said.
Hilakari said: “We think it’s a very healthy thing that injured workers with mental health claims are coming forward.”
He also noted delays in accessing mental health treatment.
“You can’t see a psychiatrist for anywhere between six and 12 months, you can’t see a psychologist anywhere between like three to four months.”
The change to eligibility, which will need to pass parliament, will come into effect in 2024.
• In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255