State disability funds going broke, and going away

By David A. Lieb

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Critics of second injury funds contend they have outlived their purpose and shift costs to small businesses that may never benefit from the funds. The American with Disabilities Act provides greater legal protections to workers than existed during the World War II era. And today's veterans also have better access to federal health care benefits, said Jon Gelman, a New Jersey attorney whose has specialized in representing plaintiffs in workers' compensation and occupational disease cases.

"If you take away the second injury fund, it may not be missed at this point, because the reasons aren't as valid to have it as in the past," Gelman said.

But the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry contends the funds still provide necessary protection to both employers and workers — especially in a slowly recovering economy.

Army veteran Valerie Brown, 34, knows how difficult it can be for the current generation of disabled veterans to find jobs. After two tours of duty in Iraq, Brown said she was diagnosed as 60 percent disabled from post-traumatic stress disorder and hearing loss. She searched for four months before landing an entry level job that she found so frustrating she quit. So she enrolled in college and is now re-starting her hunt for work.

"Coming forward and actually telling people you have PTSD is very, very risky," said Brown, an Oklahoma native who now lives in Independence, Mo.

Brown said injured veterans need help persuading employers to give them a chance.

"If something happened at work, say the person has a seizure or something and hits her head on the desk or gets injured, that would make such a huge difference," she said.

Among the veterans receiving weekly payments from the Missouri fund is John Cleeton, who broke his ankle while serving with the Army in Vietnam and then suffered a variety of on-the-job injuries as a Kansas City police officer. He fears it would be financially devastating for people who suffer future work-related injuries if the Second Injury Fund were to be eliminated.

"It helps people —it keeps them from having to resort to begging at the corners," Cleeton said

State disability funds have run into financial troubles for a variety of reasons. As more people have become eligible for payments — most of them civilians injured on the job, not veterans — the dollar value of the awards also has grown because of the rising cost of medical care, and the assessments charged to businesses have not kept pace.

Missouri is an extreme example. A 2005 law placed a 3 percent cap on the Second Injury Fund surcharge on businesses' workers compensation premiums, instead of allowing the rate to fluctuate to meet expenses. The law was backed by various business associations, who now are supporting legislation to raise the surcharge cap to 4.5 percent, or perhaps as much 6 percent. But some attorneys who represent the disabled say that won't be enough to save the fund.

"It is the business community that created this shortfall," said St. Louis attorney Mark Moreland, who is on the board of governors for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. "It is time that we stop letting them be dead-beat dads to the disabled."

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