Wyoming Lawmakers Discuss Changing Workers’ Comp System

September 22, 2008

Wyoming lawmakers are discussing several possible changes to the state’s workers’ compensation program amid complaints about the system.

One proposal is to hire an ombudsman to help workers get any assistance they need. Another proposal would address mental health care. Currently workers’ compensation is provided in cases of mental health injuries only if those injuries are associated with a physical injury.

Also, increased death and wage compensation benefits are being considered.

The measures are before the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee.

Worker advocates at the Wyoming AFL-CIO, Equality State Policy Center and Wyoming Trial Lawyers’ Association say they’ve seen an alarming increase in complaints about Wyoming’s workers’ compensation program. The advocates spoke at a forum in early September 2008.

One worker who spoke at the forum was Kevin Cowley, a drywall installer who hurt his back on the job. Cowley said the injury will require surgery, but doctors have told him they can’t operate until another condition not related to the workplace injury is addressed.

Cowley said he can’t afford to take care of his non-work-related condition. In the eyes of the workers’ compensation division, however, he has refused treatment. Cowley said the division has cut off his supplemental wage benefits as a result.

In 2007, the director of the Wyoming Workers’ Compensation Division told lawmakers that the program had amassed a reserve of nearly $1 billion. The news prompted a legislative proposal to pay rebates to employers who fund the program.

Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, called the plan “drastically wrong.” The union lobbied against the measure and it failed.

The Legislature has since requested a study of the workers’ compensation system. The study has been followed by the proposed changes before the labor committee.

In September, the workers’ advocates groups presented lawmakers with testimony from workers who’ve had trouble with the system.

“I can’t get operated on. I just don’t know what to do,” said Cowley, who has already been forced to enroll in the food stamp program.”It’s the lowest I’ve ever been in my life. If I didn’t have family and friends here I’d be living on the street.”

However, Larry Clapp, Casper attorney and president of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers’ Association, said he’s pleased with lawmakers’ response. He said workers’ compensation is a complex program dealing with very complex issues.

“The openness of that committee and items they are considering are big,” Clapp said.

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