Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) has a new president and CEO whose number 1 goal is for the public to view the workers’ compensation agency as operating with integrity.
In recent years, the WSIB has been hit with much criticism, which can be exacerbated by the public questioning its integrity, says Thomas Teahen, who took on the role in December.
“That’s why it’s such an important goal for me to deal with to ensure even when there’s a criticism it’s not immediately looked at ‘Well, the first thing to do is distrust the WSIB.’ In fact, I want people to understand ‘Yeah, there might be a criticism but we know the system is run with integrity,’” he says.
One recent allegation is that WSIB ignores the opinions and recommendations from some health-care professionals. In September, a Hamilton-area doctor, Brenda Steinnagel, filed a $3.2-million lawsuit claiming the agency fired her for refusing to reverse her assessment of an injured worker. In November, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) released a damning report titled Prescription Over-Ruled: Report on How Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board Systematically Ignores the Advice of Medical Professionals. And in January, the OFL along with workers, health professionals and lawyers made a submission to the provincial ombudsman urging him to investigate the WSIB.
But in mid February, Teahen met with the new president of the OFL, Chris Buckley, to discuss this issue.
“He’s a new president, I’m a new president here, so he and I had a very good meeting to talk about this issue and we agreed we are going to work together for both of us to understand the issue better from either perspective,” says Teahen. “Part of what we need to do is be more transparent and give clarity around how we use medical consultants.”
The WSIB uses these external consultants to assist its adjudicators to determine if the injury, illness or course of treatment is related to a workplace injury. Making that decision is the WSIB’s legal obligation, says Teahen.
Another common criticism of WSIB is around its experience rating system, which generates premium refunds and surcharges based on an employer’s accident cost experience. The rebates are an incentive for employers to focus on health and safety and improve outcomes in their workplace, says Teahen, making the comparison to rebates car insurance companies provide when drivers put snow tires on their cars.
Unions often say the experience rating system leads to claims suppression. Teahen acknowledges that work needs to be done.
“There’s probably a misalignment in the incentives in that it is now driven by large rebates or large surcharges after the fact,“ he says. “There’s an argument to be made that it probably distorts behaviour.”
To address this, the WSIB is currently undergoing a robust rate framework consultation process. As part of that process, it is looking at how it can reform the experience rating system to fit within the new framework. The rate modernization framework will likely be approved by the end of 2016 and implemented in 2019.
The WSIB recently released its 2016-18 strategic plan. One key priority is promoting health and safety in workplaces. The agency is hoping to position itself as a centre of excellence to share statistics and information.
“We have an important role to play in terms of the analytics and data that we have. We have an understanding of what the landscape is around injuries and fatalities and illnesses,” says Teahen. “We have this information and we can be a leader in this.”
Achieving better return-to-work outcomes is also a key focus for the WSIB. For example, it has health programs for particularly difficult injuries — such as back injuries — where a WSIB specialist works with the worker and his employer to get him back to work quickly and safely.
“We’re not just a system that pays benefits. Compensation is important but compensation is, in a sense, a bridge where necessary when a worker can’t get back to work,” says Teahen.
Nine in 10 (92 per cent) injured workers now return to work with no wage loss in 12 months, which is a significant improvement over where the agency was five years ago, he says.
“Those are better outcomes for workers. Those are workers who are not off work and have the pride of going to work every day, earning a living and supporting themselves, their families.”
Eliminating the agency’s unfunded liability is another key priority outlined in the strategic plan — and one of Teahen’s personal goals as president. The unfunded liability has decreased from $14.2 billion in 2011 to $6.8 billion in late 2015, and could be eliminated by 2022.
One contributing factor is that lost-time claims are continuing to decrease, and fewer claims translates to fewer costs. Ontario has the lowest lost-time injury rate in Canada, according to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada.
Teahen hopes achieving financial stability dispels the ongoing debate of whether the WSIB needs to be raising premium rates or cutting benefits to deal with the unfunded liability.
It will also give the agency a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to move forward in a new direction in terms of how it delivers service to its customers.
“There are those things where, frankly, we have to be better in terms of how we interact with employers and workers,” says Teahen. “I’d like to think there will be a point in time when employers and workers will say we are giving as good or better service than any other service provider that they deal with.”
Teahen brings a unique blend of legal, government, public policy and executive experience to his new role. A labour lawyer by trade, Teahen has also held the roles of chief of staff to the Ontario minister of labour, minister of education and premier, and he was the chief corporate services officer at the WSIB from 2010-13.
Throughout his career he has focused on bringing together employers, workers and the public service which will serve him well in his new role.
“The way we are going to reach those goals is working in partnership with employers and workers,” says Teahen. “And that is something I hope, and will be my intention, to have my time as president be characterized by.”
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of COS.
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