The need for public auto insurance

Public automobile insurance was introduced in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and BC by NDP governments. If Darrell Dexter gets it, will he give us the insurance policy we need?

If the NDP wins the provincial election expected this spring, Nova Scotians may finally get something they badly need---public auto insurance. Let's hope so because the present privately run system is the shits. Nova Scotians pay among the highest insurance rates in the country, but get the lowest accident benefits. And as car crash victims soon learn, it's easy to get bogged down in a bureaucratic, time-consuming claims system that treats victims with similar injuries very differently. Just ask Rene Ballesteros. The 50-year-old group-home worker is suing RBC Insurance, his huge, profitable, Ontario-based insurance company, for refusing to pay for physiotherapy treatments. Ballesteros suffers from the debilitating neck and back pain that resulted after his car was sideswiped by a Metro Transit bus in November 2007. He has been unable to work since the accident.

His case follows an all-too-familiar pattern known as the "duelling doctors syndrome." A medical specialist hired by the insurance company decided Ballesteros didn't need physiotherapy and recommended exercise instead. The doctor had already treated him for back pain several years earlier. However, Ballesteros's family doctor referred him to a second specialist who called for physiotherapy. Ballesteros exhausted his Blue Cross benefits paying for treatments and felt his condition was improving. The insurance company paid for a few more treatments, but stopped after the first specialist said Ballesteros didn't need them. He says it also stopped reimbursing him for lost wages. Ballesteros, now deep in debt, is trying to control his pain with prescription drugs paid for by Blue Cross. He shakes his head at the different treatment his 19-year-old son got after being injured in a separate auto accident. His son, insured by another company, had no problem getting full coverage for physiotherapy.

Pardon the pun, but the hassle involved in getting insurance companies to pay for physiotherapy is a sore point for many accident victims. A spokesperson for the insurance industry acknowledges that companies have a "preferred list" for physiotherapists. Clinics on the list often offer a few weeks of exercise under the supervision of a fitness trainer. Accident victims who choose hands-on treatment from a physiotherapist not on the preferred list can be out of luck. Their insurance company may refuse to cover the treatments or it may require them to pay out of pocket and wait months to get reimbursed. And it's not easy fighting the big companies when you're in pain and destitute.

Yes, Nova Scotia's car insurance regulations practically guarantee a life of poverty if you're unable to work after a car accident. Under the standard auto policy, partially disabled accident victims get a maximum of $140 a week for two years. If they're totally disabled, it's $140 a week for life. Just try living on $7,280 per year, especially if you aren't covered by a long-term disability plan at work. Provinces with public auto insurance are much more generous. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, for example, pay 90 percent of net wages up to a maximum gross annual income of between $65,000 and $71,000.

Public auto insurance was introduced in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and BC by NDP governments, not by Conservatives or Liberals who consistently champion private insurance and the big companies that profit handsomely from it. Look what happened in 2003, when a minority Conservative government faced political heat because the companies were jacking up rates and refusing to renew people's insurance. Instead of bringing in a public system, the Tories, with support from the Liberals, gave in to the company blackmail by imposing a $2,500 payment cap on so-called "minor" injuries. Insurance rates did fall slightly, but Nova Scotians are still paying more than in provinces with a public plan. I say it's time to ditch our costly, unjust and excessively stingy private system and go with public auto instead. If the NDP does get elected, they'd better live up to their promise.

Do you support public insurance? Let me know at

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