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Education and Employment Legislation Committee



CHAIR: Welcome. Ms Weston, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Weston : No, I don't.

CHAIR: Brilliant. I'll hand over to Labor.

Senator WALSH: Thank you very much for attending at this late hour. Ms Weston, in the government's 2019-20 budget it was announced that Comcare will establish new offices in Darwin and Launceston from 1 January 2020, and it was stated that those locations have a growing demand for a Comcare services, particularly for work health and safety inspectors. Could you give us a bit of an update on that? First of all, could you give us some further information on the rationale for the additional offices relating to the increased demand for Comcare services in those locations?

Ms Weston : Thank you for the question. As I understand, the decision was part of a government decentralisation approach. From my perspective, in Darwin there is significant Defence activity in that territory, and certainly we don't have a presence in Darwin at the moment and we do in the other states and territories, other than in Tasmania. The location in Launceston will also give us a presence directly in Tasmania.

Senator WALSH: So you don't have an office in Hobart?

Ms Weston : Not at all.

Senator WALSH: Are you on track to open these offices by 1 January 2020?

Ms Weston : I'm not sure about 1 January, but certainly in January we'll have a presence in those locations. We have been down already in Tasmania and in Darwin looking at potential locations for initial location. Then we will set up the offices in we expect January. We have a project officer already working on that and we have actually visited locations. We have agreed where we will set up our temporary offices for the first tranche of people and how we're going to locate some people there directly, and then we're going to work on where we might more permanently locate those offices as we go ahead.

Senator WALSH: Are you expecting that the positions in those two new offices will be new positions or relocations of existing employees?

Ms Weston : We are managing currently that within our current ASL and we expect that we can use natural attrition elsewhere and fill from our existing allocations.

Senator WALSH: If I can paraphrase to see if I'm right, they might be people but it will be within your overall staffing cap.

Ms Weston : Correct.

Senator WALSH: You might need to take this on notice. What will the cost of setting up new offices in those areas?

Ms Weston : Yes, we'll need to take that on notice.

Senator WALSH: I assume you were given extra resources for setting up those new offices, if not for the new staff—is that correct?

Ms Weston : I will confirm that, but I don't believe we received additional resources. We are cost recovered in a lot of elements of our work so I imagine that's how we will work through on that. Okay, I can confirm there are no additional resources.

Senator WALSH: Okay. I'll just take you to the media report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 3 October about a former Australia Border Force Customs officer who was diagnosed with PTSD and was told his workers' compensation payments would be cancelled after surveillance footage showed him walking his therapy dog and speaking at an event. I won't, obviously, ask you about the particulars of that case. But could you describe for the committee Comcare's general approach to claims for a psychological injury?

Ms Weston : I can and I will. The act that Comcare operates under, the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the SRC Act, sets out what we need to do to satisfy ourselves that a claim is able to be made. I'll ask my colleague to go through that in more detail. But, largely, the situation is that a claim is payable if someone has an injury. If that injury is of a psychological nature, it also needs to pass another step, which is that the reason for that injury was substantially work related, and then there is a materiality element to the test, as well, that we need to satisfy ourselves of.

Senator WALSH: So there's some sort of assessment process and, occasionally, some sort of review process in relation to people who may have been previously reviewed?

Ms Weston : Yes. For claims, there is a liability assessment by Comcare. If a person is not satisfied with that, there is an internal review undertaken by Comcare, in a separate area. If a person is not satisfied by that, they have recourse to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and then further review channels after that.

Senator WALSH: In this article, it sounds like the review would have been initiated by Comcare after payments had already commenced.

Ms Weston : The Comcare scheme is a 'long-tail' scheme—not for two years or something, like some of the other compensation schemes—and so, from time to time, people will get better. I'm not talking about this case in particular. But some people get better, and it is appropriate to do reconsideration about whether the payments and other assistance compensation continues; and, if it's deemed that that is the case, there is a process then to work with the claimant to cease those payments.

Senator WALSH: I assume you keep statistics. Would you be able to provide the committee with statistics, de-identified, on how many claims for psychological injury you are currently assessing and how many approved claims might be under a review of the nature that you just described?

Ms Weston : Are you talking about whether we could give you some annual statistics about how many claims of a psychological nature there have been, how many had the next stage review and then how many went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal?

Senator WALSH: Yes.

Ms Weston : We can certainly do that.

Senator WALSH: Would you be able to provide us with information, based on those categories that you just helpfully identified for me, on how many times surveillance is involved?

Ms Weston : I'll take that on notice.

Senator WALSH: Comcare has a preventative role as well—

Ms Weston : Yes.

Senator WALSH: in attempting to work with stakeholders to minimise harm. Are you able to talk us through some of the steps Comcare is taking to prevent psychological injury, in particular, in workplaces?

Ms Weston : We do have a role. One of our functions is to do research and trial things. In this last period of time, we have concentrated pretty significantly on early intervention activities, particularly focusing on mental health. I'm going to ask my colleague to outline three major initiatives we've got underway at the moment. In addition to that, there are other activities, particularly with our regulatory work. We also have some roles there as a workplace health and safety regulator. I might just get these major projects to be explained.

Ms Bekis : We have a number of initiatives underway. Firstly, we do offer education and supports to employers, both to those in the Australian Public Service and to our licensees. We have certainly lifted our efforts most recently in terms of our events and forums we've been running. We run an interdepartmental forum for mental health where we bring together leaders across the industry to talk about the key challenges and emerging issues. That's around trying to understand what is at the heart of the workplaces and what challenges they're facing. Secondly, we also have a community of practice. It's not a leadership forum, so we open it up to anyone to come in here, from industry experts to researchers, academics and other people to share their stories around what is currently going on.

We have also been piloting and trialling some initiatives, certainly in the prevention space. One of them has led us to a partnership with Beyond Blue, where we have been trialling new access to mental health coaching. New access in the health portfolio is certainly something that has been proven, at a community-wide level, to be successful in preventing early signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression. We have been trialling that, low scale, with a couple of agencies to looking at what we might want to do in the future around offering preventive services to people. This could be work or non-work related.

One of the most complicated factors around mental health is often the work related culture. It's complex. As we know, we're human beings and we're holistic. There are things that impact us that may be work or may be other things that are not work related. They all get pulled into the mix. That's a key challenge we're faced with as we continue to go down to this path. As my CEO has already alluded to, there is a legislative test around work being a significant contributing factor. We're keen to shift that conversation to thinking about wellness. How do we actually keep people well? That was the idea behind the new access pilot and partnership with Beyond Blue. Effectively that is an early intervention service open for anyone to access mental health coaching, which is confidential. Workplaces are advised of numbers, but they don't know people's identity. They could use that data to think about prevention in terms of the people who are reporting that they may be experiencing signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression. They're not diagnosed and they're not currently receiving treatment. The pilot that we ran had a very high recovery rate. They received six sessions of treatment and the recovery rate was at 78 per cent. At the community level, that number is at 67 per cent. That has taught us, at this low-level scale, that workplaces are a good place to offer preventive services. That's one initiative.

Another initiative is around early intervention. This is about reporting. Again, irrespective of cause, we are encouraging workplaces to trial alternative services where, by any injury, you can report through to a service and a nurse will pick up that call, triage that call using clinical guidelines and effectively put that person on a pathway to receiving treatment, such as physio, GP services or psychology. We're in the midst of that the moment. We have a number of agencies who are participating in that pilot. We hope to evaluate it at the beginning of next year or mid next year. That will form part of what prevention looks like in terms of practical supports and services for people as well.

There's one more: the leading indicators projects. We have a partnership with the University of South Australia. That is around using an evidence based tool called the Psychosocial Safety Climate, asking workplaces to measure their psychosocial safety. The evidence has been emerging and has started with the work of Safe Work Australia, but has progressed somewhat in actually looking at what the leading indicators are and what the factors are within workplaces that you could look at as a preventative measure. A lot of the data we talk about claims incidence data has lagged—it's already happened. The PSC, the Psychosocial Safety Climate, actually looks at how we predict what is likely to cause those events. We are doing some mentoring with agencies to look at how they could use the PSC, supported in the mentoring program with the University of South Australia—it is quite complex to use lead indicators—and effectively develop action plans within their workplace to address those leading indicators. Again, we'll have an evaluation, but that won't be till next year.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I have a question about the claims management service. Are you able to tell me about the work Comcare has been doing to improve its workers' compensation claims management service?

Ms Weston : A lot of activity has been happening in this last period of time around claims. Last year we had a pilot for delegated claims arrangements, which is allowing a couple of the departments to run their own delegated claim arrangements with third-party providers. We had two agencies in that arrangement. Comcare has outsourced its own claims management to the ANU, who is a licensee under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme.

In our own work in claims, we have more recently been looking at business processes. One of the things that we all struggle with in workers' compensation, not just Comcare but elsewhere, is: how do you better test whether people coming into the system are eligible for a claim and work through that process to minimise harm to them as they retell their story or as they are trying to get well? I might ask my colleague Mr Hughes to outline some more of the activities in the claims area.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Great. I'd love to hear how it's going and what sort of change it's made.

Mr Hughes : Our claims management work is changing. I think it's fair to say that, across jurisdictions, claims management is continuing to change. That's being impacted by a couple of factors, the first being around digitisation—better claims management systems and, as Ms Weston has indicated, better entry into that claim process so that we are lessening the load on the employee and the employer in terms of how we get to that liability determination. Then there is a raft of things in the injury and treatment space et cetera. There's better collaboration between us, providers and treating practitioners et cetera to work towards that return to health, and then there's working with employers to move towards return to work and trying to do that as effectively as we possibly can. In order for us to do that effectively, we need to keep monitoring the types of injuries that are coming into our system—the mix of injury versus disease versus psychological injury—and how we work to make sure the different processes will work in those spaces as well. In terms of where we're at, we've been on a bit of a journey for some time now, and our claims profile continues to change. We need to keep on top of that. So it's about keeping the operations going and improving but also working on these projects of improvement, which take a bit more time as well, into the future.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: And the feedback you're getting?

Mr Hughes : Feedback, generally, from employers is positive in terms of our collaboration, particularly working with agencies. So it's greater collaboration with agencies, working on collaborative efforts, particularly around return to work, remembering that in our scheme the design is that the employer is responsible for rehabilitation and return to work. Our role there is to manage the claim and work with the claimants in relation to the injury and the treatment but to then to work with the employer to get them back to work, potentially, as part of that recovery as well. In terms of the employees, we're still working on the best ways for us to receive the feedback from employees and also to work towards minimising disputes with employees. That progresses towards better practice in alternative dispute resolution but also better practices from a claims management point of view.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Great.

CHAIR: Excellent. That concludes evidence from Comcare. Thank you very much, Ms Weston, and to your officers for coming along this evening. There being no further questions, this concludes the committee's examination of the Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business portfolio, including industrial relations. I thank Minister Cash and Minister Payne; officers of the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business and the Attorney-General's Department; and all witnesses who have given evidence to the committee today. Thank you also to my fellow senators, to the secretariat, to Hansard and Broadcast, and to the people who turn the lights on and off and who fill the jugs of water up and things like that. The committee stands adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 2 2 : 40