'They starve you out'
'They starve you out'

It usually starts with a slip and a fall, or a limb that gets crushed or smashed. For Corey Johnston of Thermopolis, it was a 10-pound bolt that fell on his head in April 2000.

Almost as urgent as immediate medical treatment was the arduous process of filing and maintaining a claim with the Wyoming Workers' Compensation Division.

During recovery from his head, neck and back injuries, Johnston received a temporary total disability benefit, calculated at two-thirds of Wyoming's average monthly wage. But the payment stopped when he failed to file a monthly form to the division.

"Nobody tells you that," said Johnston, now 33. "I learned as I went."

Doctors also must file multiple reports to workers' compensation, which takes time and doesn't always go smoothly.

When it came time for a medical review and physical impairment rating for future benefits, Johnston said he was offered a low-ball figure. He protested, so all benefits immediately ceased.

There's no income during a protest, which can take months to resolve. A worker may choose a doctor of his own liking to perform another medical evaluation, but the Workers' Compensation Division makes the appointment.

"You're not working and not getting any money at all," Johnston said. "You have no income, and this is how workers' comp wins. They starve you out."

Johnston also discovered that an employer or workers' comp can obtain a doctor's release to put a person back to work without the worker's knowledge.

Putting an injured person back to work on light duty is often a good idea for the employee, if he's physically able, so he can return to normal life as quickly as possible. And it also helps improve an employer's premium rating at workers' compensation.

But Johnston said the practice also can be used to manipulate an injured worker.

"One Friday I get a call and they said, 'You go to work on Monday.' I had no time to call and verify," Johnston said.

He reported for work that Monday. But, still recovering from his injuries, Johnston couldn't return to his previous duties. Eventually, his employer fired him.

From 2000 to the time he had back surgery in 2002, three different workers' compensation case workers were assigned to Johnston's case. Each new case worker had to learn the complicated case from scratch.

After vigorous protest, he was able to persuade workers' compensation to keep a particular claims analyst on his case - the one who would return phone calls immediately and provide detailed answers to his questions.

Johnston had a rare resolution to his workers' compensation case. Because his accident occurred on tribal lands, he was able bring suit in tribal court against a third-party employer for its share of negligence in the accident, according to public records.

Johnston won a judgment against the company and signed a confidential settlement. He was able to pay back workers' compensation well over $130,000 in cash for the medical treatment and other benefits he had received.

In addition, Johnston voluntarily forfeited untold tens of thousands of dollars in future indemnity awards from workers' compensation. He didn't want the bureaucracy dictating his future medical care.

Johnston has returned to full-time work.

"I'm not the worst-case scenario," said Johnston. "But I had to fight everything."

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

One worker's story:

Corey Johnston

The Star-Tribune is publishing the personal stories of several injured workers as part of this special report on workers' compensation. These stories are unavoidably one-sided, because Wyoming's Workers' Safety and Compensation Division is legally barred from discussing individual cases.

To provide a balanced discussion of the overall issue, the Star-Tribune has sought out additional perspectives from all sides, including employers, legislators and state officials.

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