Some injured workers being helped by the Workers Compensation Fund of Utah are high profile cases that make the fund look good in handling all of the person's needs, but there are two sides to every coin, according to the newly elected president of the Injured Workers Association of Utah.
Patrick J. O'Conner had this response to a recent Deseret News story about the fund and how it is helping Paul Kuehnl, a West Valley City resident who is a quadriplegic as the result of getting hit on the back and neck by a beam in an industrial accident.For every high profile case the fund has, the Injured Workers Association of Utah can present several cases where dealings with the fund haven't been what O'Conner thought they should be.
He said part of the problem could be with the small number of adjusters the fund has (340 cases each) and his feeling that last year's $500,000 dividend to the fund's policyholders (employers) could have been used to hire additional adjusters.
O'Conner realizes that fund president Blaine Palmer has had a rough time with the fund, because it was only last July it became a non-profit, self-supporting quasi-public corporation with flexibility to operate as an independent insurance agency, but now a bill is pending before the Legislature to undo that set-up.
Another person not pleased with the fund is Jerry L. Johnston, a St. George resident who suffered a work-related injury and has had several surgeries for arm and back problems. Johnston sent O'Conner a letter outlining his problems with the fund.
After the surgery, Johnston said he went from making $33,000 in 1984 to $5,000 in 1987. His truck was repossessed, his credit rating destroyed and the problems spilled over to his family. His medical condition has been termed "stabilized," meaning there will be no more money from the fund.
"I cannot do much physical work, eliminating many jobs I could have taken to see us through financially until I get retrained," Johnston said. "I find it amazing that the fund can pay out over $500,000 in dividends while I have lost my ability to work in my chosen profession and I am on the verge of moving my family to the streets."
O'Conner backs up Johnston's feelings about the need for retraining so injured workers can get back into the work place and start being productive citizens. O'Conner is an injured worker himself and has been classified as a permanent totally disabled person because of a serious back injury suffered in a truck collision.
There are 350 permanent totally disabled people in Utah receiving benefits and seven are added each year. He said that after a person has received 312 weeks of regular workmen's compensation benefits the person is transferred to the Employer's Reinsurance Fund for benefits to be paid the rest of the person's life, if necessary.
O'Conner used his own situation to illustrate how retraining could be provided. He receives $12,532 annually from the fund. Based on his life expectancy of 30 years, he will receive $347,040 from the fund and he believes that if only 10 percent of that is spent on his retraining, $34,700 could get him through law school or a master's degree in another field.
If only four permanent totally disabled people receive retraining and stop receiving money from the fund, the annual savings would be $50,000, O'Conner said. "I would have jumped at the chance had it been offered to me," he said.
"I feel the opposition (employers and insurance carriers) aren't very compassionate toward injured workers. The bottom line is to save money at the expense of injured workers," he said.