Wyo. Lawyers Say Changes Needed for Benefits Delivery in WC Program

January 25, 2008

Legal advocates in Wyoming say they plan to press for changes in the way the state’s workers’ compensation program distributes benefits to people injured on the job.

The state program paid out about $121 million in benefits to injured workers last year. As of November, it had a growing reserve of $937 million.

Some trade associations have told Wyoming legislators that given the large reserve, they want to earn a credit on their premiums.

But several lawyers in the state promise to fight any such proposal. They said the program isn’t taking care of workers and the families of those who are killed on the job.

Cheyenne attorney George Santini said the program’s reserve fund was “bought and paid for by the blood of the injured worker.”

Santini was a speaker at a forum held this week in Casper on the shortfalls of the state’s workers’ compensation program. The Wyoming AFL-CIO, Equality State Policy Center and the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association organized the forum.

“Both the employers and employees are not getting what they paid for,” Santini said. “Instead, they’re getting a government bureaucracy that panders to special interest and will do anything in its power not to hear the voice of the injured worker.”

Workers’ compensation officials said last week they would not attend the forum.

“The specific nature of these problems is unclear, but we have always been and will continue to be amenable to discussion regarding the program and service delivery system,” said Gary Child, workers’ compensation director.

John Knox, a trucker who ran into a herd of cattle that had wandered onto the road in 1993, said at the forum that after 15 years, five back surgeries, a hernia and other problems, he’s still fighting for the compensation he needs.

“It’s been a battle every step of the way,” Knox said.

Lawyer Mike Newman represents firefighter Abe Wheeler, a firefighter who was injured in a fire that killed two other firefighters in 2005.

Newman said the state workers’ compensation program refused to pay for all the counseling and medication that Wheeler needed to deal with post-traumatic stress of watching his friends die. Newman said Wyoming law only allows compensation for mental injuries if they’re caused by a physical injury that occurs first.

“The division had a clear choice of whether to treat Wheeler, and they chose not to,” Newman said. “Not because it was the right thing to do, but just because they could.

“They are restricting benefits to the injured worker,” Newman said. “We need to be active, as employees, to advocate change to bring this system back to what it was intended to do.”

Wyoming workers lost their right to sue their employers several decades ago. Even if an employer is found to be negligent in the death or injury of an employee, neither the employee or their family can sue.

The workers’ compensation program was created in exchange to provide injured workers the medical care they needed, and help make up for the loss of ability to earn a living. However, attorneys at the forum said several changes to Wyoming law since then have created a system that discourages injured workers from seeking compensation.


Information from: Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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