Testimony heard on workers’ comp proposal

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 8:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — One man was working as an electrician when almost 20,000 volts of electricity hit him in an accident. A nurse talked about how she fell while treating a patient, severely injuring her back and ending her professional career. A woman described how her husband’s boss accidentally ran over him with a truck at work.

Well into Friday night, legislators on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee took testimony from a long list of people who had been injured while on the job — all of whom opposed proposed changes to Maine’s workers’ compensation laws. The changes would, among other things, cap the amount of time claims may be filed for people who are partially, but permanently, injured to 11.8 years. Currently, some of those types of injuries are capped at 10 years, depending on their severity. The most severe are not capped.

Any changes would not affect those who are already collecting workers’ comp benefits.

The lawmakers held a public hearing on legislative request 2781, a committee proposal that was fashioned from recommendations made by Paul Sighinolfi, executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board. The proposal replaced a bill by Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hamden, who requested that his bill be killed and the proposal be considered instead.

Proponents — about a dozen attorneys and representatives of industry groups among them — said the proposal would clear up problematic areas of the law, reducing litigation and taking costs out of the system.

“We think Maine’s system is broken. It doesn’t avoid litigation, it doesn’t finalize claims within a reasonable time frame and it doesn’t enhance employers’ competitiveness — we believe it impedes all of those things,” said Bruce Gerrity, an attorney speaking for clients who self-insure for workers’ comp. “We want a system that works, we want a system that’s fair, we want a system that appropriately compensates injured employees, a system that allows us to prosper, grow, pay taxes, do things any business in Maine would want to do.”

The support and opposition broke down along employer-employee lines. Labor unions had organized a rally with injured workers earlier in the day, and many spoke at the hearing which started at 1 p.m. and ran into the evening Friday.

James Case, an attorney who represents employees in workers’ comp cases and is a counsel to the Maine AFL-CIO, told lawmakers that this bill was about the firefighters, police officers, carpenters, health care workers and others who are working in Maine.

“Under this bill when those people reach a point in their disability of 11.8 years, this bill says goodbye, sayonara,” said Case. “It doesn’t matter if due to psychiatric problems, physical problems or a combination. The end of the road comes at 11.8 years.”

He noted that in Maine, workers cannot sue their employers for injuries or deaths that occur while on the job, because the workers’ comp system is the recourse for any such action.

Many of the workers in the room talked about how they had been injured, and challenges in working with insurance companies. They also spoke about how crucial workers’ comp benefits have been for them.

Brian Demures talked about how he was paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury he got in a construction accident that put him in the hospital for endless months.

“I still struggle with ongoing complications due to this catastrophic injury,” said Demures. “If I thought I was going to lose my benefits after 11 years, my life would be more tragic than it is now.”

Jonathan Yellowbear of Litchfield said he had been an over-the-road trucker, but back injuries have put him out of the field.

“I’m staunchly against this bill, period,” Yellowbear said.

He said insurance companies fought covering his medical issues, until 2010 when he had major back surgery. But, he added, he’ll never drive a truck again.

“That was my livelihood,” he said.

Sherry Nadeau of Belgrade talked about her husband, who had been run over by his boss in a workplace accident. That was nine years ago, and he’s still in extreme pain, she said. They’ve been denied coverage by insurance companies and continue to have problems, she said.

“Why would you give more power to the insurance companies to abuse injured workers?” Nadeau said. “This bill is continuing to erode what workers receive.”

Nadeau said she thought this bill would force more people onto welfare and increase the number of foreclosures, while “insurance companies continue to make record profits.”

When Rep. Robert Hunt, D-Buxton, asked Sighinolfi about where injured workers would turn for help when they hit that cap of 618 weeks, he replied “I don’t know.”

“We had this for years, and things seemed to work out — people got on with their lives,” said Sighinolfi.

Sighinolfi said a cursory analysis by the national group that sets workers’ comp rates suggested that his proposal may raise premiums slightly, or it could be revenue-neutral. He said the group didn’t look at other potential benefits, such as the possible decrease in litigation inherent in the system.

The current system, Sighnolfi said, is “arbitrary, its unfair, it’s cumbersome.”

“It isn’t good for injured workers,” he said.

“This proposal,” he added, “will bring certainty and clarity to the system.”

The proposal makes other changes. Currently, those collecting workers’ comp get 80 percent of their weekly benefits, capped at $634, which is 90 percent of the statewide weekly average wage, post-tax. The proposal would increase the cap to 100 percent of the average wage, raising the weekly payout by $70.

Sighinolfi’s proposal would also reinstitute the automatic right of appeal in workers’ comp cases. Now, they are appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and the court can choose whether to hear them. They only choose to hear about 4 percent of the cases that are appealed, Sighinolfi said. Under the new system, a board made of hearing officers who were not on the case originally would review the appeal.

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