Baker City Herald, May 27, 1999


Injured workers relate horror stories

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

On July 1, 1996, Roger Nelson, just 31 years old, was a little more than 10 years from a lucrative retirement as an expert mechanic for Ford Motor Co.

Nelson, who was living in Vancouver, Wash., and working in Hillsboro, reached down to pick up a manifold.

His back snapped.

He spent six months attending physical therapy sessions that left him screaming in pain but still unable to return to work. He tried anyway, but he simply could not crawl around under cars or lift heavy parts as he had since he was a teen-ager.

Nelson's employer's workers' compensation provider was SAIF, the independent, quasi-public corporation the Oregon Legislature created in 1979.

He said SAIF paid about $12,000 for his medical costs through February 1997, when the company closed his case.

Nelson and his wife, Kimberly, who moved to Baker City two years ago, said they haven't seen a dime from SAIF since.

Almost three years after his injury, Nelson still has trouble getting out of bed. He considers it a good day when he can prop his shoe on a table and tie the laces.

Ford won't rehire him, even at a job that doesn't require him to strain his back. SAIF won't reopen his case or declare him even partially disabled which would allow him to access the $750,000 in the retirement account he amassed during his career with Ford.

The Nelsons said they have more than $20,000 in outstanding medical bills. They've already emptied a $75,000 Certificate of Deposit investment Roger had through his job. He refuses to sell the race car he built (but can't drive), but he's already sold two Corvettes.

Nelson has applied for Social Security disability but was turned down each time.

He's worked with 16 claims adjusters from SAIF. He's had eight lawyers. He's seen several doctors. He said one back expert wouldn't treat him because he "didn't want to be responsible."

Today the Nelsons are driving to Portland to see another doctor. The 300-mile trip will take at least eight hours, because the couple has to stop frequently so Roger can stretch his back. The Nelsons hope the doctor's diagnosis will convince SAIF to reopen Rogerís case. SAIF was supposed to pay for the trip, but as of Wednesday the check hadn't arrived.

It's been hell," Kimberly Nelson said. "The don't want to help us."

The Nelsons were among about 20 people who attended a meeting Wednesday night in Baker City.

Several other audience members are, like Nelson, injured workers who told similar horror stories about their experiences with Oregon's vaunted workers' compensation system.

That system has been touted as a model for the nation both for its low cost -- rates have dropped by almost 55 percent since the Legislature approved a series of reforms in 1990 -- and its treatment of injured workers.

But the workers at Wednesdays meeting described a system vastly different from the one Oregon politicians and economic development officials use to lure new business to the state.

"It's just outright cruel, immoral, sadistic," said Ernie Delmazzo of the Injured Workers' Alliance. "They're treating us sub-human."

Audience members talked about problems with all the players in the system -- insurance companies such as SAIF and Liberty Northwest, doctors, lawyers and politicians.

They were especially critical of the "Insurance Medical Evaluations" insurers often require for injured workers. These evaluations, which used to be called "independent," often are used as justification for closing an injured workerís claim, Delmazzo said.

The problem, he said, is that some companies that provide the evaluations receive all their revenue from insurance companies, and thus have a vested interest in rendering opinions that may allow the insurer to close a case at the worker's expense.

Billy Washington, a Portland truckdriver who was hurt on the job July 2, 1996, one day after Nelson's injury, told the audience that the system encourages lawyers representing injured workers to settle claims quickly, because that's likely to result in more money for the attorney, than a case that lasts for years.

But the settlement workers agree to often isnít sufficient to pay for even basic medical costs, Washington said.

He urged injured workers to find lawyers who specialize in workers' compensation cases.

Washington said he was able to have surgery on his injured knee relatively soon because he had a supplementary insurance policy. But he said that six months after the surgery, his workers' compensation still hadn't yet authorized him to have surgery and required him to visit a doctor to get a second opinion about his injury.

Washington encouraged audience members to write to Oregon legislators asking them to support efforts to change the stateís workers' compensation system.

"In numbers of people is power," he said. "We need to get together as many people as we can and bombard the city of Salem."

Several people said Wednesday that one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with their injuries was convincing others, including family members how serious their situation was.

"It's been hard for us because our families don't understand what we're going through," Kimberly Lewis said.

Washington said people who have not been hurt on the job, or been close to someone who has, have trouble understanding the trauma the workers' compensation system can cause.

"No one wants to believe you," he said. "A worker who has been in a job for 25 years thinks he's OK, that his insurance will take care of him. But it can happen to anybody at any time. All of this false security they have built up is just that.

"It can go away in an instant."