The Workers Compensation Commission of New South Wales on 4 March 2020 issued a decision in the matter of Karen Bunce –v- State of New South Wales – Central Coast Local Health District t/as Gosford Hospital which determined that an assistance dog is reasonably necessary medical treatment for the purposes of section 59(b) of the Workers Compensation Act 1987.
Ms Bunce (Worker) is an experienced Registered Nurse working in the Emergency Department at Gosford Hospital.
In or about March 2017, the Worker experienced a catastrophic reaction to an incident whereby a patient at the hospital became aggressive and threatened her, although he was restrained before she came to any harm. The Worker had witnessed in 1999 a similar incident which resulted in a homicide by an aggressive patient.
It was undisputed that the incident in February 2017 caused the Worker to develop a psychiatric condition as a result of the incident but also of childhood trauma. The Worker has continued to experience ongoing panic attacks and has undergone a myriad of medical treatment from her General Practitioner and Psychologist.
In or about February 2018, the Worker’s son obtained a dog as a pet. The Worker found the presence of the dog to be helpful to her condition and her psychologist supported the idea of obtaining an assistance dog as assistance dogs have been shown to improve anxiety and depressive symptoms in patients. Accordingly, the Worker made a claim for the purchase of an assistance dog and the costs of maintain that dog for the course of its life.
Unfortunately, the Insurer denied this claim and argued that an assistant dog was not “medical related treatment” as defined in s 59 and not “reasonably necessary” pursuant to section 60 of the 1987 Act.
Consequently, the Worker referred the dispute to the Workers Compensation Commission where it was heard by Arbitrator John Wynyard.
The Insurer continued to argue that the provision of an assistance dog does not satisfy sections 59 – 60 of the Workers Compensation Act 1987.
Arbitrator Wynyard determined that the supply of an assistance dog could only be covered by the definition contained within section 59(b) of the 1987 Act which provides for therapeutic treatment given by direction of a medical practitioner.
Firstly, Arbitrator Wynyard accepted that the psychologist who supported the purchase of an assistance dog was duly registered for the purposes of psychological treatment and was thus a medical practitioner for the purposes of section 59(b).
Secondly, Arbitrator Wynyard determined that the treatment sought by the Worker, that being the provision of the assistance dog, was therapeutic to the Worker’s psychological condition and for her to travel confidently.
Finally, Arbitrator Wynyard held that the proposed treatment was reasonably necessary as the medical expert’s opinions were unanimous that the proposed treatment was appropriate and indeed has been effective for the Worker’s condition as she has obtained great benefit from her assistance dog already.
Resultantly, Arbitrator Wynyard ordered the Insurer pay the cost of and reasonably associated with the provision and maintenance of an assistant dog.
Significantly, Arbitrator Wynyard found that an assistance dog falls neatly into the definition of medical treatment as provided by section 59(b) of the Act.
This case represents an excellent outcome for injured Worker’s who might benefit from the provision of an assistance dog for their psychological condition.
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