Injured workers in Oklahoma seek compensation in adversarial system

Hundreds of Oklahomans spent most of a weekday morning last week in the crowded corridors of the Denver Davison Building in Oklahoma City, where the state's injured workers go for financial relief.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Published: February 24, 2013

In one room, Yancy Forbes, an Oklahoma City police officer, explained from the witness stand how he tore his rotator cuff in a fight with a suspect last April and then spent six weeks in a sling and several more in physical therapy.

“Sometimes I have pain when I wake up,” Forbes, in his police officer uniform, told the judge, Michael McGivern. “I have at least 15 years left in my career that I need to stay in shape, I need to be physical.”

Down the hall, George and Velda Hill waited their turn to meet with their legal representative, a woman they had never met.

George Hill shattered his back in 2007 while trying to keep a wheelchair-bound passenger from slipping off a ramp on the transit van he used to drive in his hometown of Sulphur.

The court awarded the 77-year-old $14,000 several years ago for what was considered then a temporary partial injury. Now, years after the money has run out and Hill is still unable to work — “Sometimes I faint, the pain is so bad” — he is back in court seeking permanent disability.

The couple, who drive to Oklahoma City regularly to see a half-dozen different medical specialists as part of the arbitration process, complained that the problem with workers' comp in Oklahoma is that everyone is fighting to get their hands on the money George Hill may ultimately be due.

“I would think they would treat it more like insurance than a profit-making business for lawyers and doctors,” said Velda Hill, 74.

Push for changes

But while the injured complain of wasted time and money in the workers' compensation system, top lawmakers complain the system costs businesses too much and is prone to fraud and abuse.

Proponents of the new reform measures say they could save businesses 10 to 15 percent in premiums each year by transferring workers' comp to an administrative one, as well as other changes.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, lead author of the bill, said Oklahoma's workers' comp system is among the most expensive in the nation, with the frequency of claims the highest in an eight-state region and with payouts nearly double the regional average.

The proposals would soften those costs for businesses and tone down the role of courts and attorneys in the process all while improving the service available to injured workers, said Bingman, R-Sapulpa.

“The purpose is to expedite when a worker gets hurt, make sure they're getting medical attention immediately and returning that worker to work as soon as possible,” he said. “In our current system, having the attorneys involved slows down the process. Our cases are not being closed in a timely manner, they're churning for a long time, and that adds costs not only to the employer but it adds to the medical costs.”

Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage said he will oppose the proposal. Effective workers' comp reform should focus more on curbing medical costs and physician abuse and less on reducing benefits for injured workers, he said.

A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin said Bingman's bill is “on the right track.” Alex Weintz said Fallin endorses the idea of an administrative system but stopped short of endorsing it in its entirety.

“What we want to do is treat injured workers fairly, reduce the adversarial nature of the system, reduce delay times in the system, address medical costs, and we think that moving to an administrative system is the best way to do that,” Weintz said.

Varied outcomes

Meanwhile, back across the street at Workers' Compensation Court, Haywood did not get any closer to the money she needs to fix her hands. Attorneys representing the other side did not show up, and a judge reset her conference for another date.

Until then, she will keep working as many hours as she can get in a day before the pain becomes unbearable.

“Life goes on,” she said. “OG&E don't care if you got a case pending — they want their money.”

And the Hills made their long trek back to Sulphur. With promises of a $30,000 settlement, they said they hope they don't ever have to come back.

“We got enough to fix the house to where the front porch doesn't fall off,” Velda Hill said. “It's been five and a half years; I'm just thankful to be done.”


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