ACC's suicide snub adds to family pain

MARTY SHARPE
Last updated 05:00 18/09/2012

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The number of families of suicide victims granted support from ACC has declined since changes to legislation in 2010.

A woman whose daughter took her own life after suffering an abusive relationship said the changes meant surviving family were not considered victims.

The woman said her 21-year-old daughter took her life in Christchurch in November 2010. She left behind a young son.

The woman, now a sickness beneficiary and living in Wellington, had been struggling to pay the $7000 for her daughter's funeral.

She sought help from ACC but was told the corporation no longer provided cover for families of suicide victims, unless the suicide was due to a mental injury caused by physical injury, sexual abuse or a work-related mental injury.

"I've got it [the funeral bill] down to about $4500 . . . It's just been devastating. It really has. I don't think people know what it's like. Anyone in that situation needs all the help they can get," the woman said.

Figures provided by ACC under the Official Information Act show the number of suicide claims accepted by the corporation dropped from 347 in the 2009-10 year to 127 in 2010-11 and just 51 in the 2011-12 year. The average number of suicides over the past five years was 543.

Between July 2008 and July 2012 the corporation paid $19.8 million to families of suicide victims. This was paid in weekly compensation, childcare, survivor grants and funeral grants.

Labour changed the law in 2008 to class all suicides as accidents.

When former ACC minister Nick Smith changed the law two years ago, he said suicide was not an accident and should be considered a health issue similar to heart disease or cancer. The original act in 1972 excluded suicide, he said.

One of the country's top lawyers specialising in ACC legislation, John Miller, was not surprised at the drop of claims.

"ACC will just knock them back and people will be in such a state they won't often fight it.

"The problem is these people leave dependants. Just because a husband or partner can't cope with bankruptcy or something like that, is it right that they leave the family bereft of income?"

Labour ACC spokesman Andrew Little said anyone who took their life had clearly lost perspective and was incapable of understanding the consequences of their action.

"No family asks for a family member to commit suicide and it can leave them in a very difficult situation. At a time when ACC has made a surplus of over $3 billion, it's not as if this is an area they cannot afford to cover.

"We will review this when back in office," he said.

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ACC Minister Judith Collins said the objective of Mr Smith's reform was "to ensure ACC is affordable, sustainable and fair for claimants and levy payers".

"My priorities for ACC are to ensure entitlements are delivered transparently and fairly to those who need them," she said.

HOW NICK SMITH CHANGED THE RULES

In 2001 the Labour government introduced changes to the Accident Compensation Corporation Act that meant entitlements were paid to families of victims whose suicide was the result of mental illness (ie not necessarily a mental injury). In 2008 this was extended to cover all suicides.

This meant families of suicide victims could receive a funeral grant, a survivor's grant of around $5000, funding for counselling and a share of income-related compensation for dependants.

Two years later National's ACC Minister Nick Smith changed the law, so families of suicide victims only received entitlements if ACC established the person who committed suicide was not able to appreciate the consequences of their action, or that a previously covered mental injury caused, or contributed to, the suicide.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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