Reasonable Doubt: why cuts to insurance benefits are a social justice issue

Car insurance. It’s not a sexy topic. But it has a large impact on Ontarians. It’s also a social justice issue.

Full disclosure: I am a personal injury lawyer. I am not an unbiased person when it comes to car insurance policy. But, in the same vein, I am also someone who has daily, direct experience with how insurance policy plays out in average people’s lives.

Each year in Ontario, nearly 50,000 people are injured in car accidents. Many suffer significant injuries, like spinal cord injuries, brain injuries or major psychiatric injuries. Car accidents have an enormous impact on our society, both in terms of the human cost and their interaction with our economy.

On June 1, 2016, more cuts to car accident benefits come into force, an effort by the government to “make insurance premiums more affordable.” In short, the cuts mean that injured people are going to be entitled to significantly fewer benefits.

The new cuts will see the entitlement period (how long you can access benefits) for medical, attendant care and rehabilitation benefits for people with serious but not catastrophic injuries cut in half, from 10 years to five years. The medical, attendant care and rehabilitation benefits available for people with “catastrophic injuries” will be cut in half. It will also be more difficult for someone to be deemed “catastrophically impaired” and thereby gain access to greater benefits. For example, people with incomplete paraplegia may no longer meet the definition of “catastrophically impaired,” reducing their potential entitlements by more than fifteen times.

Why is this a social justice issue? Because the cuts have a disproportionately large impact on vulnerable or marginalized Ontarians.

Most of my clients earn low incomes or are from historically marginalized groups. Why? For several reasons, I think.

People with lower incomes and certain marginalized groups are more likely to have physical jobs, making injuries that much more disabling. Whiplash as a lawyer can be difficult. Whiplash as a contractor or long-haul truck driver can be devastating.

Injuries can hit already vulnerable people hard and quickly. Nearly half of Canadians believe they are one or two pay-cheques away from poverty. Injuries push many Ontarians into poverty and keep many others living there long-term.

Poverty and the many challenges that can be associated with it (poor mental health, violence, multiple forms of discrimination and so on) are traumatizing experiences. People who have experienced trauma, or are already suffering the effects of trauma, are more vulnerable to injuries like PTSD, anxiety and depression. People who experience psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression are less likely to recover from injuries and are more likely to develop other health disorders, like chronic pain.

Personal injury lawsuits and car accident benefits are more important for people with low incomes because they need compensation when they are injured they cannot simply rely on their savings or family help.

Of course, the people who will be most affected by cuts to car insurance benefits are the mentally and physically disabled and their families. For many, their quality of life will be significantly worsened.

The cuts to accident benefits arise from concerns over high insurance premiums. And for good reason. Ontario has the highest car insurance premiums in Canada.

Is the problem that insurance companies are paying out too much? No. Don’t let the powerful insurance lobby fool you. Insurance companies continue to make strong profits in Ontario. Not to mention the fact that insurance premiums in BC are cheaper despite the fact that access to compensation is generally speaking much greater.

Everyone wants lower car insurance premiums. But the reality of increased cuts is that a great many more injured people will go without meaningful treatment or benefits. Many will be forced to depend on meager social assistance rates and a public health care system that leaves many services unfunded.

Car insurance is not a juicy social justice issue. You won’t see clever memes on Facebook. You won’t see a story in Mother Jones or read a great bell hooks essay on the problems with deductibles. But sometimes the less exciting policy decisions – the tinkering in the background that so few of us know anything about – have enormous, irreversible social consequences.

Joseph Fearon is a personal injury lawyer with Preszler Law Firm LLP. Reasonable Doubt appears on Mondays. Follow @JWCFearon on Twitter.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Preszler Law Firm LLP or the lawyers of Preszler Law Firm LLP. | @nowtoronto

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