Collins may be what ACC needs

22:36, Jun 16 2012

Things are grim when Judith Collins becomes the new caring face of government. Drowned out by the sound of ACC heads hitting the floor was the quiet, reasoned voice of Green MP Kevin Hague.

Uncommonly for an Opposition MP, he called on the minister not to resign. With half the board and the chief executive felled, Ms Collins, he argued, was the one person able to tackle the culture of disentitlement that has infected the state insurer.

Like NZ Super, ACC is a holy cow. Kiwis love the unique no-fault insurance scheme and it is lauded worldwide. No ambulance-chasing lawyers, no expensive lawsuits, the certainty you'll get some assistance if injured. Lovely and fair.

Until now National has had carte blanche to get its books in order. But Nick Smith and his board chairman, John Judge, got much too confident in slashing to the bone. And - as with class sizes - in the public mind some things are sacrosanct.

At first the Bronwyn Pullar debacle looked like one of those privacy breach scandals that crop up every few months in our digital age. Sure, it was the serious end of the spectrum because the deeply personal secrets of sex abuse victims were at risk.

A data-leak scandal usually follows a prescribed course: some info ends up in the wrong letter or inbox, the indignant recipient goes to the media - cue much hand-wringing, an apology and a promise to review protocols.


But the unfathomably arrogant way ACC has handled the Pullar affair has laid bare the contempt with which it views its most vulnerable clients.

National had been trumpeting success with ACC. No wonder - with an operating surplus of $3.5 billion it's a behemoth. A corporate success story.

Some felt tricked by Nick Smith in 2009 into believing ACC was in financial crisis when it had about $15b in reserves. Levies went up - and then down again just in time for the election.

Many wondered whether Dr Smith had exaggerated the problems to justify privatisation of ACC. Nevertheless he pressed ahead with plans to open up the $1 billion-a-year workplace injury cover market to private insurers.

Mr Judge was installed to carry out a stocktake. The corporation aggressively reset its direction - the default assumption was that those with long- term injuries were on the take. Nothing tells that story more clearly than documents tabled in Parliament by Mr Hague this week. Two ACC staffers spelled out how the organisation had become too focused on client needs. Instead, they recommended, it must behave like a proper insurance company - picking out which claims cost the most and targeting them for exit.

Since 2009, more than 2500 were knocked off its list of long-term claimants.

As Dr Smith's ideological drive gathered pace, counselling was stripped from victims of sexual abuse. Those who suffered work-related hearing loss also lost their entitlements and hundreds of elective surgery claims were turned down. In fact, so many that ACC was forced to admit that it was too hardline last year.

This cavalier attitude to clients was crystallised in the treatment of Ms Pullar. She was alternately ignored and bullied by staff, who expected her to give up and go away like so many others before her. The supposedly independent medical adviser hired by ACC accused her of having a narcissistic personality and fleecing the corporation. When it demonstrated a blatant disregard for the privacy of clients she went public with her frustrations.

And instead of contritely hanging its head in shame, ACC's bosses sullied her reputation by publicly accusing her of extortion and forcing her to endure the stress of a police investigation.

With Crusher Collins as minister, this firestorm was only ever going to end one way. This week she set about cleaning house - and luckily for the board she prefers a clean kill.

On Wednesday, she put on her game face, slicked on the blood-red lippy and faced down the media and her parliamentary opponents. One journalist in the scrum compared it to political rope-a-dope - she bore the barrage for more than 20 minutes until reporters exhausted their questions.

In the House she wouldn't give an inch. Her message was clear - she wants a culture change at ACC and brushed off as "silly nonsense" the suggestion from Labour's Andrew Little that she should relinquish the portfolio.

Relationships with claimants need to be improved, she stressed this week. Private information should be treated with respect and "the vast majority" should be happy in their dealings with the corporation.

With her typical Tory toughness she said: "I've got no problem with them getting people back to work, no problem with that at all - actually, that's what they need to do." But, tellingly, she added: "It's very hard for a monopoly trying to get people to treat your clients or your claimants as though you're in a competitive business, but that's what I feel that they need to."

Certainly, we have seen some winding back of Dr Smith's reform programme under her watch, more of a focus on injury prevention and improving rehabilitation.

Insiders say she was grumpy at being handed a hospital pass over opening up competition in the workplace account - which the Government backed away from just as the Pullar allegations surfaced. Private insurers just weren't interested - either they calculated it wasn't worth the risk or they had been burned when a previous stab at privatisation was unceremoniously dumped by Labour.

Before the election Dr Smith indicated the Government would also examine opening up the motor vehicle account, but that too is up in the air.

Mr Little says Ms Collins is too encumbered by other portfolios to give ACC the TLC it needs. But then the two are locked in a bitter defamation battle.

Mr Hague says Ms Collins is making all the right noises. This is an opportunity to get ACC "back to its original role as the provider of full and fair compensation and rehabilitation to injured New Zealanders".

As justice minister and a lawyer with 20 years' experience, Ms Collins is fully aware that a return to the days of workers' compensation and the right to sue for damages would cripple businesses and burden the court system.

The Woodhouse principles on which ACC is founded laid down a social contract which relies on it having the trust of the public. To restore that trust, Ms Collins must first categorically clear up what role she had in the decision to report Ms Pullar to the police. Any finding from the inquiries of the auditor- general and Privacy Commission need a robust response. And, while it might stick in her craw, an apology to Ms Pullar and her maligned advocate Michelle Boag wouldn't go amiss.

Ms Collins' tough love approach and the public spanking she gave Barry Matthews worked in restoring public confidence in Corrections after the custody murder of Liam Ashley and the Graeme Burton rampage. Her wrecking- ball approach could eventually carve out the more "user friendly" ACC she has promised.

The Dominion Post