Can hardships faced by injured workers and their dependents be reduced?

The newly formed Workers' Compensation Advisory Council will address that issue in the next few months, and based upon the myriad of suggestions made by council members Thursday during the first meeting, the group won't run out of discussion items for a long time.Formation of the 23-member council to help the State Industrial Commission formulate rules or suggest legislation on workmen's compensation issues came from a bill passed during the last general legislative session earlier this year.

Commission Chairman Stephen M. Hadley, who is serving as council chairman, said the mission of the workmen's compensation program is to reduce the hardship upon injured workers and their dependents by providing a speedy and fair means for compensating them and promote their return to the work force as quickly as possible in the most cost-effective method.

In explaining the process of awarding the compensation and the steps when an injured worker files a claim in a disputed award, Commissioner John Florez said when people are referred to certain agencies the commission must make certain the services are provided.

"We shouldn't be in the game of referring people to dry holes," Florez said.

Ed Mayne, president of the state AFL-CIO and a council member, said there have been problems over the years with injured workers getting speedy compensation, and the council will "do some good to humanize the process."

In connection with the attempt at quicker service for injured workers, a few days ago the commission announced a computer program to monitor the status of worker's compensation cases as they are given to insurance carriers and physicians.

In addition to the suggestions made by the members on what the council should study, Florez offered some thoughts regarding continuances requested when a contested workmen's compensation case is before a commission administrative law judge.

He suggests that any continuance be "for good cause" with a stipulation from the opposing party and must be approved by the administrative law judge assigned to the case. Roger Sandack, an attorney who represents injured workers before the commission, said some continuances are necessary and often benefit the claimant.

Virginius Dabney, another attorney who represents injured workers before the commission, said the council should examine whether there should be self-insured workmen's compensation in Utah.

In a Sept. 13 letter to the commission, Dabney referred to the bankruptcy of Kaiser Steel/Coal Corp. and Interstate Motor Lines, both self-insurers for workmen's compensation. Dabney said he has been told that Kaiser won't pay for workmen's compensation or medical benefits in any cases where it was self-insured.

Dabney wants the council to examine the law that allows companies the choice of being self-insured for workmen's compensation benefits.

Other issues suggested by council members for discussion are:

- Having an administrative law judge assigned to handle emergency items rather than waiting for a full hearing.

- What can be done to get a person into a new job when an injury prevents the worker from returning to the old job?

- What can be done to eliminate or reduce the cost of medical reports requested by claimants?

- Can relatives be reimbursed for aiding an injured worker rather than hiring a profession? (An example is a relative changing a bandage in a home rather than having a nurse do it.)

- Better coordination between insurance carriers and rehabilitation agencies.

- A law making rehabilitation mandatory.

- More doctors serving medical panels to examine injured workers and assigning a degree of disability that helps in the benefit awarded.

- A minimum time for an administrative law judge to issue a decision.

- Using plain language in paperwork and discussions so the claimant understands what is being done.

- When people receive workmen's compensation benefits, should cost-of-living benefits be included?

Hadley said the council will meet quarterly and more often if critical issues are discovered.