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Comp lawsuit misguided

November 12, 2003

Faced with a workers' comp system that has racked up a $2.4 billion deficit, the West Virginia Legislature passed a reform bill last session that gave some state agency lawyers some prosecutorial powers.

Now the Prosecuting Attorneys Association is suing, saying that the law usurps local prosecutors' power. When the state is fighting to trim the deficit, it would be nice to see prosecutors worry less about their prerogatives and more about the state's fiscal health.

The Legislature was forced to act in the last session after hearing a report that estimated that without any changes, the system's deficit could rise to $4 billion by 2006.

The 292-page bill only got through the legislature after a variety of bumps in the road, including an unanticipated premium increase, a dispute over whether a special court should be set up to hear claimants' appeals and a mad search for cash to pay down the deficit.

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Part of what is driving the deficit up is fraudulent claims and companies that aren't paying their workers' comp premiums.

To discourage others from doing the same, some beefed-up enforcement is needed. That's why the prosecutorial-power language was added to the bill.

But according to T.J. Obrokta, the workers' comp commission's chief counsel, there was no intent to bypass local prosecutors. Instead, he told The Associated Press, he envisioned a partnership in which his agency would take the lead only when necessary.

This is the same approach used by police agencies dealing with criminal cases outside their usual area of expertise. The workers' comp commission would be foolish not to work with local prosecutors, because they're the ones who are knowledgeable about the people in their areas.

By the same reasoning, local prosecutors should welcome some outside help, unless they want to make the dubious argument that it makes sense to develop in-house expertise when they may only face a few such cases each year.

When the workers' comp bill was passed, we said that like the malpractice issue, it might take more than one bill to get it right. But there's hardly been time enough to assess whether the bill as written is working.

The prosecutors should withhold judgment - and drop their lawsuit - until they have more information about what's going on.

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