Hearing loss threshold 'penalising thousands'

HEARING HASSLE: Malcolm Stone, 65, began working in the shunting yards in 1972 and needs hearing aids after developing tinnitus.
HEARING HASSLE: Malcolm Stone, 65, began working in the shunting yards in 1972 and needs hearing aids after developing tinnitus.

ACC has been accused of discriminating against people whose hearing was damaged at work. Shane Cowlishaw reports on a complaint that's gone all the way to the United Nations.

When a locomotive horn went off next to Malcolm Stone's ear, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

Having worked in the shunting yards since 1972, he had been exposed to loud noise for decades and suffered from intermittent tinnitus.

The nearby blast caused a constant ringing in his ears that drove him to a specialist. But he did not lodge an ACC claim until eight years later, in 2005, when his hearing difficulties worsened.

After receiving a specialist's report, ACC agreed to provide Stone with hearing aids.

But in 2011 he approached the corporation for replacements and - after being tested - was told he did not meet the new threshold for occupational hearing loss.

The change introduced in 2010 means at least 6 per cent of hearing loss must be attributed to injury or occupational factors.

ACC went from fully funding his hearing aids - which cost $7500 for a pair - to offering $1500.

"They literally cut it off, just about, so I thought this is not right, I went to see my union."

Now 65, Stone said that after fighting the decision and several more assessments, he had given up and taken the smaller sum ACC had offered.

"I've literally run out of money to fight ACC so we had to let the case go ... I think it's like any law change, I've got to accept it.

"I've had to buy my own hearing aids, I'm basically deaf without them."

His lawyer, Hazel Armstrong, said the new threshold affected thousands of people across the country.

She has lodged a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Council, arguing that the policy is discriminatory and unfairly penalised those with hearing loss.

It was estimated up to 25 per cent of the noise-impaired population suffered from occupational loss, with many of them in lower-paying occupations which meant they could not afford hearing aids.

"Even if you had a scratch or a minor graze you can still get cover for that, you don't have to have 6 per cent of your body affected.

"I want New Zealand really to understand there's this discrimination against hearing loss ... I can't see there's any justification for it."

ACC spokeswoman Stephanie Melville denied the threshold had been introduced primarily as a cost-cutting measure.

Before its introduction, clients with low-level hearing loss were getting cover from ACC but no entitlements, while now anyone who qualified for cover automatically received help such as a contribution towards hearing aids.

It was not possible to identify what savings had been made since the threshold was introduced, but other changes such as the introduction of the joint funding scheme between ACC and the Ministry of Health had made a greater impact.

ACC Minister Judith Collins said that before the changes, employers were paying for claims caused by recreational noise and ageing.

The Attorney-General considered the changes and concluded they were consistent with the Bill of Rights Act. There was no plan to change the 6 per cent threshold.

But Collins said she had asked officials to review the operation of hearing loss assessments and entitlements.

Fairfax Media