Politics

Vaughn Palmer: ICBC rebates highlight predicament of no-fault insurance

Opinion: The financial squeeze on accident victims does not represent a ‘bug’ in B.C.’s no-fault program — it is a feature

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VICTORIA — Premier David Eby’s latest $110 giveback on ICBC premiums drew attention to the plight of the victims of his no-fault auto insurance makeover.

They are out there: People who have been catastrophically injured in automobile accidents. Who were confronted with take-it-or-leave-it settlements from ICBC’s arbitrary adjusters.

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They couldn’t seek better compensation and justice through the courts because … well, that is the essence of no-fault.

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They have been reduced to begging for better treatment, amid a growing recognition that (as one victim put it), “They’re hoping you’ll just give up.”

Her story and others were recounted last weekend by Susan Lazaruk of Postmedia. Mike Smyth aired some horror stories on CKNW this past week as well.

This financial squeeze on accident victims does not represent a “bug” in the no-fault program — it is a feature.

Eby admitted as much last week in explaining why ICBC has been able to cap rates and hand out rebates.

“We stood up to the powerful interests that were quite satisfied with the status quo around ICBC,” he told reporters in announcing the latest rebate May 8. “We had a very strong and organized lobby of very well-paid lawyers that were making significant political donations to the now opposition parties. We cut legal fees out of the equation.

“We’ve gotten ICBC back to where it is today, and are able to make today’s announcement,” said Eby.

Those legal fees were the product of accident victims seeking redress from the ICBC-insured perpetrators of the accident that injured them. They were also going to court to challenge ICBC’s insufficient settlement offers.

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By cutting the lawyers and the courts out of the process, Eby consigned accident victims to the mercies of ICBC, an agency where that quality is in short supply.

For drivers fortunate enough to be accident-free and uninjured, the New Democrats offer the reward of rebates on their insurance premiums.

“This is the fourth rebate that ICBC has been able to issue since our reforms, and it puts $400 million back in the pockets of drivers across British Columbia,” Eby boasted last week.

Four rebates in six years ought to raise suspicions that ICBC has been overcharging for insurance so as to generate sufficient cash flow for the New Democrats to score political points with rebates.

Not so, says Eby. Last week’s windfall was the result of “prudent management and careful stewardship of ICBC’s growing investments.”

Didn’t he just say that it was because the government froze out the high-paid lawyers?

Given the premier’s political self-interest in this election year, his explanation for the rebates should be tested by an independent regulator.

The independent regulator for ICBC is the B.C. Utilities Commission, which also oversees B.C. Hydro.

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The New Democrats, in opposition, defended the commission’s independence, same as they deplored the B.C. Liberals for treating ICBC as a cash machine.

Eby says the New Democrats still respect the BCUC.

“The utilities commission serves a critically important role for British Columbians,” he said last week. “It ensures transparency about what government is doing with B.C. Hydro, with ICBC, and the disclosures are voluminous and detailed. They are available for the public.

“The utilities commission is appointed and operates independently,” he continued. “The commission is free to ask questions and do reviews.”

Just last year, Eby fired the chair of the supposedly independent commission and replaced him with a handpicked appointee. He also keeps the commission on a short leash.

“It is open to government to issue directions to the utilities commission when they feel it is in the public interest to do so,” said Eby. “And I will happily go to British Columbians and say that we directed the utilities commission — on ICBC’s recommendation to us — to share $400 million with drivers.”

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The “we” in this case is Eby and his Cabinet colleagues. On the same day as they ordered ICBC to pay out the rebates, the New Democrats also ordered the utilities commission to rubber-stamp them.

Within 10 days of receiving notice of the rebates from ICBC, the commission must approve them — no ifs, ands or buts.

So goes Eby’s definition of transparency and independence: Victims denied proper legal representation. ICBC appointed judge and jury. The independent regulator silenced.

And from time to time, the premier gets to take a no-fault victory lap by ordering ICBC to generate a rebate and the BCUC to approve it. If a private insurance monopoly were allowed to operate in such a high-handed fashion, you know what the New Democrats would be saying.

But because they created ICBC and control it from the Cabinet room, they claim it is run in the public interest and never mind the little people being ground up in the bureaucratic machinery.

“For drivers, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from,” Eby said at one point last week.

It matters to accident victims. They are on the sidelines, watching as cynical a vote-buying scheme as has been seen in this province since … well, since the last time David Eby handed out ICBC rebates.

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