January 5, 2016 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

At ProPublica, Michael Grabell expanded his “Insult to Injury” series on the dismantling of the nation’s workers’ compensation system with a disturbing look inside what he dubs the “workers’ comp industrial complex.” He begins his story in Las Vegas at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference & Expo. And even though Grabell’s previous investigations exposed just how much injured workers must struggle to receive fair compensation and medical care, he details a conference draped in luxury and expense. He writes:

A scantily clad acrobat dangles from the ceiling, performing flips and splits as machines puff smoke and neon lights bathe the dance floor in turquoise and magenta. Dancers in lingerie gyrate on poles to the booming techno. Actors dressed as aliens pose for selfies with partygoers. There’s an open bar and waiters weave through the crowd passing out chocolate truffles.

It’s the closing night of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference & Expo.

The party at Light, a Cirque du Soleil-themed club at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, capped off the workers’ comp industry’s biggest annual networking event. For three days in November, hundreds of vendors wooed insurers and employers with lavish after-hours parties, giveaways of designer handbags, photos with Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, and free rides in orange Hummer limousines.

A top manager for a major insurance company recalled standing amid the hoopla a few years back when a company CEO turned to her and marveled: “All of this because somebody got hurt at work.”

In fact, Grabell reports that while workers’ comp conference attendees typically hear from all kinds of celebrities, such as Arianna Huffington or Pete Rose, they rarely hear from the very people they’re supposed to help: injured workers. He also reports that insurers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on cost-containment programs — for example, in California alone, the money insurers spent on cost containment grew from $197 million in 2005 to $471 million in 2014. With so much money in play that even private equity firms have gone on a “buying spree” within the workers’ comp industrial complex, it’s no surprise that workers are getting left behind. Grabell writes:

Increasingly, though, decisions to deny care aren’t being made by workers’ employers or insurers, but by these myriad claims administrators, managed care companies and cost-containment firms. Some industry observers say the firms have added a layer of cold bureaucracy to an already complicated system. CorVel — a managed care and claims-handling firm whose stock price has nearly doubled in the last three years — recently sent letters to the widows of two police officers killed in the line of duty, wishing their husbands a “speedy recovery.”

There’s even a Facebook group for injured workers who say they’ve been mistreated by Sedgwick (a company that processes claims for large employers).

“I don’t think we have created the savings intended and I think we’ve made the system a much more complex, difficult to navigate system,” said Bob Wilson, who runs the popular industry site, WorkersCompensation.com.

Wilson said he jokes that even though he’s been in the industry for 15 years, he still doesn’t understand what some people do. “No wonder injured workers are getting lost in the system.”

To read Grabell’s entire article, visit ProPublica.

In other news:

In These Times: S.E. Smith writes about Boston hotel employees who work in hotels that pointedly advertise to patients who come to town seeking help at the city’s many medical facilities. Some such workers have reported “carpets so soaked in blood that they squelched underfoot” as well as soiled linens and used needles. In fact, such complaints triggered an OSHA investigation — the agency charged Wyndham Hotel Group with failing to protect workers from biohazards as well as failing to isolate contaminated laundry, among other citations. Smith reports: “It’s a striking set of penalties that should be putting other hospital hotels on notice, as well as a sign for the health care industry that something is going very wrong at some of the hotels they’re recommending to patients and family.”

Atlantic Monthly: With the new year, comes new wages. Bourree Lam reports that with the ringing in of 2016, minimum wage raises went into effect in 12 states. Minimum wages will also rise in Maryland and Washington, D.C., in July, and inflation adjustments will take place in Colorado and South Dakota. Lam writes: “The next battleground, for both proponents and critics, is likely the debate over raising the federal minimum wage — a debate that’s likely to feature prominently in speeches from 2016’s presidential hopefuls.”

Chicago Tribune: Deanese Williams-Harris reports that OSHA is investigating the death of a worker at the Ford Motor Company’s Chicago Assembly Plant. A concrete wall collapsed and killed John Jaloway, 45, and seriously injured another worker. At the time of the incident, Jaloway was removing a section of the wall to make room for a new door. According to Williams-Harris, OSHA has opened an investigation into Litgen Concrete Cutting & Coring Company.

The New York Times: Jesse McKinley reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan this week to raise the minimum wage for state university workers to $15. The plan would impact about 28,000 workers, including students who have work-study jobs that help pay for tuition while they attend school. When fully enacted by 2021, the wage raise will cost the state $28 million and will be drawn from the state university budget. McKinley writes: “At a rally in Manhattan, the governor framed the action as part of a larger push on his part to increase wages in New York and to add momentum to a national effort to narrow the gap in income between the rich and the poor.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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