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A smack in the head with a pair of tongs compressed rig worker Richard Johnson's spine. Wyoming's workers' compensation program stepped up to cover his medical costs and part of his lost wages.

With a long recovery ahead, Johnson agreed that "vocational rehabilitation" was a good idea.

He enrolled in Western Wyoming Community College but was soon forced to drop out. Workers' compensation had refused to pay. It was 1981. Johnson was 21, newly married, with a daughter and a house payment. So he was forced to earn a living the only way he knew how: back in the oil field.

His doctor's release came with orders not to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds, which amounted to a nudge and a wink on the rig. One day Johnson bent over to pick up a mud sack and felt a pop.

Twenty-seven years, and half a dozen back surgeries later, Johnson said the division's incessant denial of claims and its seemingly deliberate harassment have taken a bigger toll than his injuries.

"I'm seeing a very beautiful family being destroyed because I got hurt at work," Johnson said. "Your injury is just an injury. But what workers' compensation does to you is completely destroy you until you give up."

Complaints prompt study

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said the volume of complaints and testimony about workers' compensation in recent months persuaded lawmakers to launch an interim study. The study will be led by the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

"That was one thing on every senator's list was workers' compensation," Scott said. "We heard quite a bit from some proponents that we have some real problems there."

Lawmakers were prompted by worker advocates who recounted dozens of stories just like Johnson's, insisting that abuses by the agency are not isolated events, but symptoms of a broken bureaucracy.

"I think workers' compensation is trying to prevent fraud, and in doing so case analysts get jaded and start suspecting everybody. Then legitimate claims get a hard time, and we have seen a number of those," Scott said.

The paramount concern among legislators has been the average caseload for the division's claims analysts. Each of the 48 claims analysts is responsible for about 286 cases, according to outgoing Wyoming Workers' Safety and Compensation Division Director Gary Child.

But Child notes that not all of those cases require daily or weekly attention.

"They have a blend of cases, some that perhaps have just filed application. Those require timely, appropriate action. And we have cases that never close with the division. We have cases dating back to the '50s," Child said.

Twice in recent months, Child has testified to legislators that the caseload is manageable. The caseload is being audited in comparison with other states' workers' compensation programs.

Lawmakers were pushed into the interim study by the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, the Wyoming AFL-CIO and the government watchdog group Equality State Policy Center. The groups have organized two public forums in recent months to highlight problems with workers' compensation. The first was in November, the second in February.

More forums will be scheduled throughout the state this year, according to organizers.

"The reason we came up with this forum is we got tired. We got tired of the continued assault on workers," said Kim Floyd, the Wyoming AFL-CIO's executive director.

Floyd said an "open for business" attitude among legislators and years of industrial lobbying have tilted workers' compensation into an "employer protection" program that systematically discourages workers with long-term injuries from seeking claims at all.

Laws and bedside manner

It's been 12 years since the last significant reform of the workers' compensation program. In that time, the division has gone from a bankrupt system to one that has amassed tens of millions of dollars in cash surplus.

While attorneys including George Santini insist the surplus was "bought and paid for with the blood of the injured worker," leaders in the business community say workers' compensation is a fair, efficient program that carefully scrutinizes every claim.

The system works for the most part, said Larry Madsen, vice president of Black Hills Bentonite in Casper.

"There are always exceptions one way and the other, but I don't quite understand what the issue is at this point," he said.

The cash surplus inspired legislation this year that would have given employers a rebate on their premiums. The legislation failed.

Criticism of workers' compensation is divided between the laws that guide the agency's procedural operations and the agency's own execution of those laws.

Critics say changes to workers' compensation statutes have steadily reduced benefits and stacked on procedural requirements that seem to place an undue burden on injured workers.

In regard to bedside manner, the division has been accused of harassment. Tactics include baseless and continual denial of claims that are ultimately proved legitimate and compensable, "doctor-shopping" for desired diagnoses, and outright intimidation by claims analysts.

Child said he cannot counter specific accusations, because state law prevents him from discussing details of individual cases. But he rejects all notions that his agency engages in any such activity and says most people who use the system are satisfied.

"Workers' Compensation is an eligibility-based program, and as with any human service delivery system of this nature can be subject to criticism when an individual's expectations are not met," Child said via e-mail.

In a follow-up phone interview, Child said anecdotal accusations are common with any human service delivery program.

"It is subject to a high degree of criticism, whether objective or subjective," he said. "I firmly believe the division is providing an array of medical and indemnity services to the injured worker, and in an equitable and consistent manner."

The agency is also statutorily prevented from releasing information about individual employers' track records regarding the number of injury claims filed by their workers, according to Child. That means workers seeking employment cannot check potential employers' safety records.

State laws also prevent the release of information regarding delinquent payments from individual employers, according to Child.

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Bill Schilling, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance/Wyoming Heritage Foundation, said he suspects trial lawyers are behind the push for workers' compensation reform.

"It's trial lawyers who stand to benefit, and organized labor that's protecting its membership, and the Equality State Policy Center, which has a collaborative relationship with AFL-CIO," Schilling said.

(The AFL-CIO and about 14 other labor groups are among the 32 member organizations listed on the policy center's Web site. The Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association also is on the list.)

"OK, so there's eight or nine instances where there was an issue," Schilling continued. "But what about the hundreds of thousands of cases that have gone the other way? We just hear about the bad and not the good."

Why it matters

Supporters of workers' compensation reform say that at a time when Wyoming's work force is stressed to the limits, churning out unprecedented public revenue and business profits, many who get hurt on the job are denied the benefits they deserve.

The effect is that injured workers who don't find help with workers' compensation are forced to turn to other government assistance programs.

On the personal front, the impact is devastating to families. Some families are forced into bankruptcy, college funds get raided, and couples divorce.

"My family, my whole life has gone down the drain," said Mike VanPatten of Evanston.

VanPatten has struggled with workers' compensation over a back injury he sustained in a rig accident. He said employers pay good money into the program so that workers who get hurt on the job can get the help they need without becoming burdens on taxpayers.

"But they do everything they can in their power to get rid of you, and not take care of you like they should. They try to get you out of their hair and dump you on average taxpayers," VanPatten said.

Laws guiding the workers' compensation program are designed to carefully scrutinize claims, in order to have a fair and efficient use of the premiums paid by employers, Sen. Scott said. He said if the rules are unevenly applied and an injured worker doesn't receive fair compensation, then that's a problem with management.

Scott said claims analysts have the difficult task of vetting claims according to a complex set of factors, including an aging work force and a lot of physical labor.

"You get people who get to be 55 or 60, and there's a whole bunch of normal aches and pains. You just can't do what you could when you were younger. So when they get an injury they think it's time to retire," Scott said.

No matter what your personal experience is with workers' compensation, a careful review of the division is critical to fostering Wyoming's energy boom, according to Casper attorney Hampton Young.

"These are people trying to live the American dream. They're paying taxes, shopping at Wal-Mart. They're people that our economy needs to keep going," Hampton said. "Why would an employee come to this state to be subjected to this system when he's injured?"

Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 577-6069 or dustin.bleizeffer@trib.com.

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