“There are no wrong paths to work,’ said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. And there is little to argue with that. Still, I have doubts about the efficiency of the stricter monitoring of incapacitated workers and self-employed people by the health insurance funds, which the minister aims to achieve with his bill.

To curb the rapid rise in long-term illness and its huge social costs, those who fall ill must undergo mandatory physicals with the health insurance fund after 4, 7, and 11 months. The consulting physicians will be supported by nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and clinical psychologists.

Behind the scenes

More monitoring of people with a long-term illness, by a multidisciplinary team, is an excellent track to promote reintegration. But for the minister to rely on the health insurance funds to do so is strange, to say the least. The consulting physician is still relatively unknown to people with a long-term illness and less familiar with the actual work situation. That’s why the measure seems to shoot itself in the foot from the start.

Other measures make more sense in the fight against long-term incapacity for work. Everything starts with the contact that the employer and employee have to maintain. Why is the government not investing in flanking measures to enforce them? Such monitoring is more effective than visiting a physician every so often who is less familiar with the work situation.

Having the health insurance fund physician assisted by a bevy of specialists is also well-intentioned and, on paper, the right approach. But such support can be organised closer to the workplace. The occupational physician and the multidisciplinary team of external occupational prevention and protection services have more visibility and impact on work- and people-related factors behind the scenes. The greater the distance from the workplace, the greater the chance essential things will be missed.

More coordination

Plus, the set terms are outmoded. Instead of providing a consultation after four months of incapacity to work, it is smarter to take action or take preventive action as early as shortly after an absence due to illness.

Finally, I call for better coordination of the various initiatives from the government. In a matter of days, both Flemish Minister of Labour Jo Brouns and Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke announced proposals to speed up reintegration. The broad focus on this pressing issue is to be welcomed. But without clear consistency, employers and employees risk not seeing the forest for the trees. There may be many paths to work, but soon, no one will know which one to take…