Informing the development of, or changes to, legislation is one of the ways research evidence can have an impact. And sometimes the path to having an impact on legislation involves the work of intermediaries—other individuals or organizations who use the research findings to help make a case for change. Both of these were the case recently when research by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) on the suppression of workers’ compensation claims informed changes to legislation in British Columbia.
Claim suppression refers to any overt or subtle action by an employer or its agent that has the purpose of discouraging a worker from reporting a work-related injury or disease to a workers’ compensation board, thus denying them benefits to which they may be entitled. In the absence of inducement or pressure not to report an incident to a workers’ compensation board or not to claim benefits, under-reporting and under-claiming alone do not constitute claim suppression.
In March 2018, Paul Petrie, a former vice-chair of the B.C. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal, submitted his commissioned report, Restoring the Balance: A Worker-Centred Approach to Workers’ Compensation Policy, to the Board of Directors of the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia (WorkSafeBC). Petrie noted in his report that “the issue of claim suppression is fraught with allegations that are difficult to document.” Petrie recommended “that the Board of Directors consider initiating an independent review of this issue by a qualified organization with a scientific methodology to determine whether and to what extent claims suppression is a significant issue in the BC workers’ compensation system.”
Subsequently, WorkSafeBC commissioned a study in which IWH collaborated with Prism Economics and Analysis to estimate the nature and extent of claim suppression in B.C.’s workers’ compensation system. The report, Estimates of the Nature and Extent of Claim Suppression in British Columbia’s Workers Compensation System, was completed in December 2020.
While the IWH study was underway, another report about the workers’ compensation system in B.C. touched on the issue of claim suppression as part of a much broader review of issues related to the culture of the workers’ compensation board, case management and return-to-work practices. In her 2019 report, New Directions: Report of the WCB Review 2019, lawyer Janet Patterson, also a former vice-chair of the B.C. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal, noted that the province’s Workers Compensation Act lacked a means to enforce the prohibition against claims suppression. She recommended that the Act be amended to address this gap, and that an education campaign for employers and workers around the issue of claims suppression be launched.
IWH report provides estimates of claim suppression
The IWH study on the nature and extent of claims suppression in B.C. involved surveys of workers and employers, as well as analyses of randomly selected workers’ compensation claim files. By comparing the results of the surveys with the results of the risk estimates from the file analysis, the report provided a plausible range of the extent of under-claiming, claim misrepresentation (e.g., reporting injuries that involved lost work time as if there was no time loss) and claim suppression. The study estimated a rate of claim suppression of work-related injury or disease in B.C. in the range of 3.7 to 13.0 per cent, with estimates towards the lower end being more likely. This range is consistent with findings from a study of claim suppression in Manitoba and studies of under-reporting in other Canadian jurisdictions. (For more details of the study methods and findings, see the articles and publications available from the study project page.)
In light of the IWH findings, Petrie prepared an addendum to his 2018 report, titled Claim Suppression: The Elephant in the Workplace. He submitted the addendum to WorkSafeBC’s Board of Directors on March 9, 2022. Petrie noted, “In my view the Claim Suppression Study is excellent research that meets the well established high standards of the Institute for Work and Health and builds on the sound methodology of the prior claim suppression studies by Prism Economics.”
Petrie’s addendum built upon the data provided in the IWH report to estimate the extent of unclaimed time-loss injuries in 2019 and the “cost … borne by injured workers, their families and the public through the taxpayer-funded Medical Services Plan and other income support programs covered outside the accident fund.” He also highlighted some of the data in the IWH report on under-reporting and claim suppression and made a number of recommendations to strengthen protections against claim suppression.
On November 1, 2022, the Honourable Harry Bains, Minister of Labour in the government of British Columbia, introduced Bill 41, Workers Compensation Amendment Act (No. 2), 2022. Bill 41 included a number of proposed amendments to the Workers Compensation Act, including the addition to Section 73 of the Act of a new, enforceable (through orders and administrative sanctions) prohibition against claim suppression. The bill was passed on November 23, 2022, and received Royal Assent on November 24. The new provision against claim suppression came into effect on the date of Royal Assent.
In the debate on the bill in the B.C. legislature on November 1, Minister Bains noted that “prohibiting claims suppression will help to ensure that work-related injuries and diseases are funded out of the workers’ compensation system, as intended, rather than through the public health system, at a cost to the taxpayers.”
In the debates on November 22, the Minister referred to the report by Patterson and, extensively, to Petrie’s addendum. He also quoted Petrie’s reference to the IWH claim suppression study. Regarding the latter, Minister Bains said, “So here is a study that was conducted by WCB, and it came back suggesting there’s a significant number of underreported or not-reported claims… So when we are talking about claims suppression, as was studied by the independent body… [it] is a significant number that claimed that the injury should have been reported and wasn’t reported. I think that’s what we are talking about.”
The Minister’s remarks in the legislature make it clear that the IWH study, the Petrie addendum that drew upon its findings and the Patterson report all informed the decision to develop Bill 41, which is now law. Petrie had flagged an evidence gap, the IWH study for WorkSafeBC helped to fill it, Petrie took up that evidence to provide new recommendations, and the B.C. government acted to amend the Workers Compensation Act to strengthen protections for injured workers.