Injured worker, advocates want to hear election talk on WSIB

Injured workers and their advocates want candidates to commit to reforms at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board ahead of the Ontario election.

Workers denied access to hearing aids, prescription drugs, advocates say

Rosanne McNamee, a doctor of audiology in Manotick, said she was shocked by the WSIB's decision to stop routine coverage of hearing aids from certain manufacturers. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Injured workers and their advocates hope candidates lend an ear to concerns about the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board as Ontario voters prepare to cast their ballots.

Access to hearing aids sits high among the list of concerns after the WSIB began restricting patients to devices from only certain manufacturers just last year.

Fred Fraser says the list of devices now covered by WSIB didn't work for him. He uses hearing aids due to damage from his work at the DuPont chemical plant in Maitland, Ont.

"When you're watching TV, you miss a lot of stuff," Fraser said about the hearing aids. "Or when people are talking, you miss words."

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has stopped routinely covering hearing aids from some manufacturers. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Staff at Davidson Hearing Aid Centre in Brockville, Ont., did convince the WSIB to cover Fraser's preferred devices after asking for special access.

That process was onerous and unfair, though, according to Amy Holder, a hearing instrument specialist.

"(WSIB) is supposed to be in the interest of the worker," said Holder, who helped Fraser obtain his new hearing aids. "And it's not taking into consideration those interests at all."

The Brockville office sees up to two clients per day who rely on WSIB benefits for hearing aids, Holder said, so the new restrictions are creating significant paperwork and hardship.

When Fraser's current hearing aids come due for replacement, Holder added, he'll have to go through the same appeal process to qualify for them again.

Not the 'super deluxe product'

Rosanne McNamee, a doctor of audiology in the south Ottawa suburb of Manotick, said she was shocked to get the WSIB's letter informing her of the changes.

She sees no financial benefit from recommending one hearing aid over another and makes her selection based on what works best for the patient.

"It's not about the super deluxe product for us clinicians," McNamee said. "There are many times when I prescribe a very basic hearing aid for my patient."

Modern hearing aids do more than just amplify sound, McNamee added, with their very different ways of processing background noise or altering the intensity of certain pitches.

After using a particular hearing aid for a period of time the user's brain gets "wired" to it, and their hearing suffers when they switch, she said.

"To have to force them into a completely different platform is torturous, to be blunt," McNamee said.

Some devices are also particularly effective at managing certain symptoms. For example, those made by a company called Widex — now excluded from the WSIB's regular coverage — have a feature that makes them very effective for people suffering from tinnitus, McNamee said.

Lawyer Maryth Yachnin says the WSIB is unfairly denying injured workers access to health care benefits such as drugs prescribed by their doctors. (Submitted photo)

Tinnitus is ringing in the ears, a frequent symptom of people with noise-induced damage to the ear — a problem that would be common among those using WSIB benefits for hearing aids, McNamee noted.

Like Holder, McNamee called the WSIB's process for getting access to an off-list hearing device flawed.

"It can take months in order to get an approval. The person making the decision of whether it's approved or not ... has not seen the patient, has not assessed the patient," McNamee said. "And in the interim the patient is suffering."

Prescription drugs also a concern

The WSIB is also letting workers down for general health-care needs, according to lawyers who assist patients..

"Health care and listening to doctors is just a giant issue," said Maryth Yachnin, a lawyer at the Industrial Accident Victims' Group of Ontario legal clinic.

In addition to hearing aids, Yachnin said the board also refuses to cover drugs being prescribed to patients by their doctors. 

WSIB spokesperson Aaron Lazarus said the list of covered hearing aids was developed through a competitive process in which manufacturers submitted technical information about their products.

Lazarus said the list features 200 different types of hearing aids.

"If you think about most things you go about in your life ... to have 200 options is a lot," Lazarus said, suggesting workers can also request special access for devices not on the list.

"We understand there are some concerns being raised by people with vested interests. Our interest is making sure that people are able to hear."

Lazarus also said the WSIB wants to work with audiologists "to make sure that people are able to hear."

Responding to the issue of prescription drugs, Lazarus said the board relies on a list of medications developed with input from an advisory board featuring doctors and pharmacists.