27 Jan 2022

ACC goes back to drawing board over failed $1.4m navigation service

7:39 am on 27 January 2022

A new $1.4 million service designed to help people understand ACC's systems and disputes process has failed to achieve many of its objectives, forcing the agency back to the drawing board.

ACC Sign in Wellington

(File image) Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

ACC established the Navigation Service in 2019 in response to a 2015 report from injury support group Acclaim Otago, which highlighted the difficulties clients faced in getting advocacy when challenging decisions made by the agency.

Barrister Miriam Dean QC independently reviewed the report and recommended ACC set up a free advocacy service to improve clients' experience.

But the agency did not fully implement all of Dean's recommendations, opting instead for a service that would help people understand its processes, rather than providing advocates to act on a clients' behalf.

This prompted warnings from academics and lawyers, in 2018, that the service would not address the issues identified by Acclaim Otago and was being "set up to fail".

A review of the Navigation Service's first year of operation, carried out by ACC in November 2020 and obtained by RNZ under the Official Information Act, found it failed to perform on multiple fronts.

It attracted only 2366 clients in its first year - less than half the 5000 clients that ACC predicted it would reach - and did not reach the key target groups identified as needing the most help, including Māori, sensitive and serious injury claimants, and those with literacy issues, because they could not attract the right providers.

The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency was contracted to provide Māori services but quit its contract early after finding the work more complex than ACC had originally pitched. The review found the two other providers - WayFinder and Council of Trade Unions - also struggled with the complexity of cases.

ACC advertised the contracts as "providing answers to simple questions from clients" mostly by telephone. In reality, most cases were complex, with some taking up to 40 hours and 69 interactions with clients to resolve and limiting the number of clients they could help, the review found.

Former ACC minister Iain Lees-Galloway was warned multiple times that the service ACC was designing would not be fit for purpose.

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Barrister Warren Forster and academics Denise Powell and Tom Barraclough wrote to former ACC minister Iain Lees-Galloway (pictured) about their concerns. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Barrister Warren Forster and academics Denise Powell and Tom Barraclough wrote to Lees-Galloway multiple times in 2018 with concerns the solution under offer would not resolve the issues highlighted in Acclaim Otago's report, and did not follow recommendations in the Dean report.

"We are very concerned that evaluation of navigation services will not be transparent and they are effectively being set up to fail in relation to the wrong policy goals," the trio wrote in May 2018.

Further research into why it had failed, conducted by ACC in June last year, found the agency's own frontline staff had a "lack of awareness" about the service which created further barriers to clients getting help.

Acclaim Otago spokesperson Denise Powell said she wished ACC had heeded their warnings.

"Anyone who understood the system knew that it wasn't going to work. These aren't simple matters. They don't need someone to tell them 'this is what you're entitled to'. People need advocacy.

"I wish they had listened. It was a great opportunity and now it's several years down the track."

ACC had previously promised its board and Lees-Galloway that the new service, which cost $100,000 to set up and $1.4m to run annually, would save money in the long run because fewer cases would end up in a dispute hearing, known as a Fairway review.

"The average cost of a Fairway review is around $2000 - 5.7 times the expected average cost of advocacy assistance. Every instance of advocacy which avoids a full review represents a cost saving to ACC," ACC wrote.

But it failed to measure any cost savings or KPIs to measure provider performance so it had no way of knowing if the service was saving money and if it was actually helping clients.

ACC has spent much of the last year redesigning the service to create something more in line with what advocates wanted in 2015, including "helping clients through the conciliation and review process", internal documents show.

It has also mooted the possibility of creating a government-wide advocacy service to help people navigate multiple agencies.

Hazel Armstrong, a spokesperson for lobby group ACC Futures Forum and a lawyer specialising in ACC law, said this was something that many clients desperately needed.

"Very frequently, people have issues with their employer, with MSD [Ministry of Social Development] and ACC. A one stop-shop, would be very helpful."

Creating a proper advocacy service for ACC clients was pressing because it had become more complicated to deal with ACC since 2015, and there were now fewer legal aid lawyers willing to take on the work, Armstrong said.

ACC declined to be interviewed saying a spokesperson was not available and it also failed to respond to many of RNZ's specific questions about the Navigation Service.

In a statement, ACC said it was "currently drafting a procurement plan" for a Māori service provider, which it hoped to have up and running by "late 2022".

The Navigation Service was set up "based on the recommendations" of the Dean report and "using the best knowledge available at the time," a spokesperson said. "As the community revealed their needs through their engagement, ACC has been committed to listening, reviewing and evolving the service."

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