Lawmakers want to hear from docs about WSI
BISMARCK -- Legislators said Thursday they want to hear for themselves what problems the medical community has with workers' compensation issues. The talk came at the end of an all-day meeting in which workers said a flaw in the state Workforce S...
BISMARCK -- Legislators said Thursday they want to hear for themselves what problems the medical community has with workers' compensation issues.
The talk came at the end of an all-day meeting in which workers said a flaw in the state Workforce Safety and Insurance system is the agency's practice of dismissing injured workers' doctors' expertise.
Thursday's meeting was of the interim Industry, Business and Labor Committee, which was recently assigned the duty of looking into WSI issues.
Ed Christensen and Sebald Vetter, both of Bismarck and both active in workers' advocacy, said WSI hires out-of-state doctors to consult on cases who then reverse the local doctors' opinions.
"(WSI officials) don't believe our doctors in North Dakota," Christensen said.
Another, Dan Finneman of Dickinson, said consulting doctors WSI hires often aren't licensed to practice medicine in the state.
The phenomenon recently showed up in a court decision in which a judge reversed WSI's denial of benefits to an oil rig worker.
Northeast District Judge Michael Sturdevant wrote that it was interesting for WSI to dismiss a hearing officer's reliance on a memo of a physician assistant who had not examined the worker, but who had looked at his medical records.
"This is rather hypocritical since WSI itself frequently relies upon opinions rendered by physicians it has hired to conduct a record review without ever actually examining the claimant," Sturdevant wrote.
Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, asked Vetter to clarify.
"Doctors in North Dakota say 'You shouldn't work' and it's not being recognized?" Berg asked.
Vetter said the practice has caused a situation in which "doctors don't want anything to do with workers comp."
When committee members reminded Vetter that doctors, like WSI employees, can't discuss workers' specific cases due to confidentiality laws, Vetter shot back: "When do you want me to bring (my) doctor in?"
Later, Rep. Darrell Nottestad, R-Grand Forks, asked WSI attorney Tim Wahlin if it was true doctors avoid workers' compensation patients.
"There are a couple," Wahlin said. "I don't think you could find six. I know of four or five."
That didn't seem to ring true for Berg, whose wife is a physician in Fargo.
"I've heard from (medical) providers that they cringe" when they get a patient whose injury is work related, he said. They dread WSI's paperwork and "bureaucracy," he said.
Doctors tell Berg, "Just let me treat them (WSI claimants) like I treat anybody else," he said.
Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, said he hopes the committee can hear from physicians themselves at a future meeting.
Kasper also told Wahlin and committee members that it should be noted that injured workers face a problem that WSI benefits don't address. When they have to stop working due to injury, or take a lesser job, they often have to drop out of their employers' 401(k) retirement plan. As a result, they not only have to quit making contributions to their plan themselves, they also miss out on any matching funds their employers would have made, he said.
Other legislators asked that someone from WSI's quasi-independent arm, the Office of Independent Review, testify at future hearings, also. Workers and their advocates say the office is not truly independent of WSI and provides little help. State AFL-CIO President Dave Kemnitz told the committee that 42 percent who seek administrative hearings on their cases come to the hearings without an attorney. WSI always has an attorney.
Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.