Ontario to reform auto insurance system to combat fraud, slash rates

Ontario has announced significant reforms to the auto insurance industry in a bid to combat fraud and lower premiums, though critics say the plan will only make life more complicated for accident victims.

Report finds province has highest premiums in Canada, despite low rates of collisions and deaths

The province's Liberal government says auto insurance fraud annually costs Ontario $1.6 billion. (Geoff Nixon/CBC)

Ontario is making changes to the auto insurance industry to try to combat fraud and reduce rates for drivers, though some say the overhaul will create new challenges for crash victims.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa says the cost of auto insurance fraud is estimated to be as high as $1.6 billion a year and it's time to stop it.

He says the government will develop standard treatment plans for common collision injuries such as sprains and whiplash, create independent and neutral examination centres to provide medical assessments for more serious injuries, and establish a Serious Fraud Office to tackle fraud in the system.

"We recognize that in order to achieve substantive, sustained rate reductions over time, we've got to make these structural changes," Sousa told reporters Tuesday morning.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa revealed details of the plan Tuesday at Queen's Park. (Pierre-Olivier Bernatchez/Radio-Canada)

"The gumming of the system, the abuse within the system is creating unnecessary costs," he added.

A government-commissioned report earlier this year found that Ontario has the most expensive auto insurance premiums in Canada despite also having one of the lowest levels of accidents and fatalities.

Ontario's announcement comes as the Liberal government is still trying to fulfil a promise to reduce rates by 15 per cent on average from 2013 levels — rates have now decreased on average by about eight per cent since then.

The government missed its self-imposed deadline of August 2015 to hit that target and Premier Kathleen Wynne has admitted that was a "stretch goal."

Plan unfairly targets victims, lawyers say

After details of the plan were announced, personal injury lawyers blasted the proposal, arguing that it will complicate the treatment and claims process for victims.

"This is a government that really has a pattern of really punishing those who need help the most," said Michael Smitiuch, who runs Smitiuch Injury Law in Toronto.

Lawyer Michael Smitiuch says the new plan would create unnecessary roadblocks, though he doubts it will be implemented before the 2018 election. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

He called the proposal to develop standard treatment plans a "cookie cutter approach" that will not adequately meet the needs of people injured in accidents.

"I foresee more difficulties for injury victims in the future, I foresee problems claiming benefits and having them actually paid out," he said.

"None of these changes that are being implemented today will in fact help anybody," said Sebastian Gallagher, a consultant at Neinstein Personal Injury Lawyers. "It's supposed to provide clarity and less confusion but it really does the exact opposite," he added.

History repeating itself?

Critics also expressed concern by pointing to similarities in the plan with the failed Designated Assessment Centres (DAC) that were introduced in 1994 and shuttered in 2006.

The DACs were designed to provide independent assessments of injuries, but experts said that process was "often long, drawn out and expensive," according to the commissioned report from Ontario's auto insurance adviser David Marshall.

"This is really history repeating itself," said Smitiuch of the new independent centres, who called the DAC system "an utter failure."

While Marshall's report acknowledged that the proposed independent examination centres are a "similar" concept to the DACs, it also argued that the end results would be much improved.

The new centres are to be based in hospitals, and injured patients would be evaluated earlier than under the DAC system, Marshall wrote. The findings would also not be used to either accept or deny claims.

Sousa echoed that promise of independence, saying the examiners "will not be held accountable to an insurance company, or a legal profession."

With files from The Canadian Press