A review of the Workers Compensation Board of Alberta (WCB) is recommending the province establish an independent office to deal with disputes and give workers more leeway to choose their own health professionals.

The 189-page report released Thursday is the first review of WCB policies in over 15 years and makes more than 60 recommendations.

The report says the legislative, policy and structural changes are designed to bring about a worker-centred WCB featuring greater independence, transparency and accountability.

"We are confident that these recommended changes will protect the future stability of the WCB, while ensuring that the needs of injured workers are addressed in a fair and transparent manner," said review panel chair Mia Norrie in a news release.

Critics slam proposal for surplus funds

However, business groups and the official Opposition Wildrose Party were quick to criticize recommendations they say suggest an end to the distribution of surplus funds.

"Alberta businesses pay 100 percent of the WCB premiums and now there are suggestions that money should be siphoned off for new uses unrelated to its core purpose," said CFIB Alberta director Amber Ruddy in a news release.

"The WCB is an insurance program, not a social program and employers are fed up with suggestions to fundamentally alter the scope and intent of the system."

Wildrose labour critic Glenn van Dijken called the recommendation to redirect the surplus funds one of his "biggest concerns" with the report.

"Employers have had a couple years now with financial returns that are concerning and that are testing their viability and I believe that some of them are in a position that they're almost banking on WCB surpluses to be refunded as they have been in previous years," van Dijken said in an interview with CBC News.

The report also suggests workers should be able to choose their own health professionals, including doctors, as long as the health professionals meet WCB criteria.

It also recommends the establishment of an independent office, that would serve as an ombudsman when it comes to disputes with workers and would regularly audit the WCB for quality control 

Collaborative resolution

The review also proposes a system-wide commitment to seek an early and collaborative resolution of any disputes that arise, leaving formal processes such as internal reviews, appeals, and medical panels as tools of last resort.

Decision-makers in the system "should engage in meaningful dialogue with employers, workers and appropriate parties to discuss challenges and come up with solutions," the report says.

While the report suggests benefits especially "where there is hardship, fatalities, permanent injuries of young workers," be adjusted, the adjustments should not result in significant cost increases.

The review, initiated in March, also recommends further study of the more complex aspects of the system, such as the model for calculating employer assessments.

The review was done by a  three-member panel consisting of John Carpenter, a lawyer with the Chivers Carpenter law firm; Pemme Cunliffe, an in-house counsel with Covenant Health; and Mia Norrie, a labour relations consultant.

The release comes two weeks after employers and injured workers, who believed the province was holding on to the report, called on the province to release it.

The government said it will take the summer to review the report before making any decisions.