Workers compensation appeal waits 'not a fair time frame' but improving
Advocate for injured workers says more action necessary to reduce backlog of cases
Workers compensation appeal officials are acknowledging that wait times for decisions are a problem, but say they have improved, while advocates for injured workers are calling for more resources to clear up the current backlog.
Chief review commissioner Marlene Hickey says that time frame is currently averaging six or seven months.
“Obviously six or seven months is a very long time for these people who are waiting,” Hickey told CBC Investigates.
“Certainly it is not a fair time frame, but it is the time frame that we have to deal with, and it has been a time frame that's been improving."
Much of the problem comes from how long it takes to convene hearings for cases. That process that can take months.
After the hearing takes place, according to Hickey, things speed up.
"Sixty days from the day of a hearing to a decision is a more reasonable target,” the chief review commissioner noted.
That benchmark — 60 days from hearing to decision — was achieved in 67 of those 138 cases, or 48.6 per cent of them.
"We're not doing too bad,” Hickey said. “We do have some cases that go beyond that. Right now I think we're averaging about between 60 and 70 days. That means that some of the cases are getting out of here much quicker, some of them are taking longer."
According to decisions posted on the WHSCRD website, some of those cases took less than a week to resolve; the quickest was completed in two days.
The longest time between hearing and decision of those 138 files was 212 days.
Hickey said there is an overall backlog of 150 cases right now, down significantly from last year when she was hired as full-time chief review commissioner.
‘A backlog is a backlog’
But an advocate for injured workers says that improvement is not good enough.
"It may be a step in the right direction,” said Trish Dodd of the Newfoundland and Labrador Injured Workers Association.
Dodd has been helping injured workers for 23 years.
She said there aren't enough resources in place, and not enough full-time people hearing cases.
"Maybe the political appointments (are) not the way it should be done,” Dodd said. “Perhaps they should be staff people, like the chief review commissioner is."
In February 2013, the province appointed Hickey as full-time chief review commissioner to reduce the backlog of appeals. The job was part-time before that.
According to government statistics, the number of decisions jumped to 305 in the 2013-14 fiscal year, up from 227 a year earlier.
In addition to Hickey, there are four part-time commissioners currently working on cases.
Two other part-time posts are vacant, including the one held until recently by Justice Minister Judy Manning.
Dodd said there is a lack of political will to fully address the problem.
"It seems like it's become now just a part of Service NL where it's just another spoke in the wheel,” Dodd said.
“It's unimportant, and nobody really is paying attention to these ... and how long these time frames (are), and how it is impacting people."