Workers' compensation woes spelled out

April 17, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. - Marshall Clowser was in a car crash while working on his job in 1995 and required major dental surgery as part of his recovery.

The West Virginia Workers' Compensation Division agreed to cover the cost of the surgery and a dentist performed part of the procedure, Clowser said.

But before the rest of the surgery could be completed, Workers' Compensation decided it would not cover the cost of the procedure, Clowser told local lawmakers at a public meeting Wednesday night.


Because the surgery was delayed, a bacterial infection from Clowser's mouth spread through his body and caused damage to his kidney and liver.

"It's just been one mess after another," said Clowser, who lives in Martinsburg, W.Va. "I don't want money, I just want to get well."

Clowser's was one of the stories told at James Rumsey Technical Institute to illustrate the wide ranging problems facing the near-bankrupt agency.

Employees and employers came to the meeting to tell local lawmakers how a lack of responsiveness from Workers' Compensation, its high premiums and other problems have wrecked their lives and threaten their livelihood.

Delegates Walter Duke, R-Berkeley; Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson; John Overington, R-Berkeley; Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley and Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, listened and took notes in an attempt to understand the situation better.

A special session of the Legislature might be called in June to deal with Workers' Compensation, Duke said.

Workers' Compensation helps workers pay for medical expenses when they are injured on the job. Employers pay into the system based on the number of employees they have.

But in no way is it that simple, as workers and employers explained.

Employees complained of slow claims payments, the inability to get assistance from workers in the agency in answering questions and bad regulations in the agency.

Business owners complained about high premiums.

Joan Harmon, safety director for Bonded Carriers trucking company in Martinsburg, said she pays $359,100 in Workers' Compensation premiums for a $3 million payroll.

Harmon said she did some checking with similar-sized trucking companies in neighboring states and learned they pay premiums of about $187,500 in Virginia and $253,500 in Maryland.

If West Virginia increases its Workers' Compensation premiums to levels that some have suggested, the premiums Bonded Carriers will have to pay will increase to $504,000, Harmon said.

"I can't afford it. I can't afford to stay in West Virginia and be competitive. That's the bottom line," Harmon told lawmakers.

The trucking company employs about 150 people.

Lou Clawges said he runs his own security systems business in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and would like to hire some help so he can expand. But Clawges said Workers' Compensation premiums are so high he can't afford to bring on employees.

"My business wants to grow but I can't," Clawges said. Clawges said he has tried to contact Workers' Compensation staff members to get information but "no one has an answer, no one wants to call you back."

Overington told workers and employers to get names of individuals they talk to in Workers' Compensation so lawmakers can take action.

Faircloth said he has tried to get answers from the agency and he gets one story one day and a different one the next.

Employers are charged the same premiums for different risk-level jobs even though the program is not supposed to be run that way, Duke said. And companies run up debts with the agency, only to declare bankruptcy, form a new company and repeat the process over and over again, Duke said.

"I've heard all kinds of horror stories. I've never heard anything good about Workers' Compensation from any angle," Duke said.

Does Workers' Compensation work?

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