Kathy Kasey Got Hurt Working At Home Depot …

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Limping Reform

Kathy Kasey Got Hurt Working At Home Depot And The Store Is Skimping On Medical Treatment. Proposed Fixes To Workers’ Comp Law Won’t Be Enough.

January 18, 2007

By Meir Rinde

Home Depot worker Kathy Kasey was moving a washing machine for a customer one day a year and a half ago when she twisted her foot badly. Kasey, who was 59, didn’t worry too much about it. She thought if she went home and rested her feet she’d be okay.

“Sometimes you’ll twist your foot funny and you’ll get a horrible pain, but it goes away in an hour or so,” said Kasey, who worked at the Home Depot in Wallingford. “But it didn’t go away.”

The store sent her to its favored local clinic, which diagnosed a twisted ankle. After a week she got crutches, and then physical therapy, but she says the clinic doctor never even touched her foot, and Home Depot’s insurance company wouldn’t let her visit an orthopedist. Her leg remained swollen, but even so she kept working, dragging herself along the store’s long corridors.

It turned out she had a fracture. But it wasn’t until almost a year after she first hurt herself — a year of fighting with the insurance company, of shuttling back and forth to workers’ compensation hearings — that she finally got extensive surgery, surgery that was “much more” than what she would have needed if she’d gotten proper treatment from the start, she says. Then the insurer balked at paying for a home health aide, even though she was immobilized and lives alone, she said.

In a statement, the Home Depot said state law allows it to give employees a list of doctors from which they may choose, and it defended its decision-making processes, saying, “Request for surgery is subject to utilization review, not dissimilar to requests made through one’s personal health insurance plans for surgery related to non-work related injuries.”

Workers’ compensation does reportedly help many people. At a legislative committee meeting last week, Workers’ Compensation Commission Chairman John Mastropietro said there were more than 53,000 claims in Connecticut last year, 90 percent of which were handled without the state even getting involved.

But that still leaves thousands of claims that involve some kind of dispute every year, including many where workers feel like they’re victims of a system that allows employers and insurers to harass them, to accuse them of lying about their injuries, and to throw up obstacles to proper treatment, all in the name of saving money.

“They feel like they’re being laid siege to by the other side,” Rep. James O’Rourke told Mastropietro at the January 9 meeting. “How often can they be called back for medical reviews and surveilled and dragged back to continued hearings, on and on?”

Sen. Edith Prague said she wants to make some changes in workers’ compensation law, requiring employers to tell workers about paperwork they should file, and allowing commissioners to order payments for a longer period to injured people. Prague also wants a bigger penalty for insurers who won’t pay up.

It’s unclear whether those changes would help someone like Kathy Kasey, however. The goal of commission hearings is often to tell an insurer it should pay for a treatment, without going as far as a legal order, but as the hearings drag on for weeks, workers can remain undertreated, unemployed and financially vulnerable. Yet when O’Rourke asked Mastropietro whether he needed more power to require payments, he demurred.

“Those are policy decisions where you’re going to have to weigh what we need to do to meet our obligations to injured workers, versus what we need to do to make certain that our employers remain competitive so that they can continue to provide the jobs for these people,” Mastropietro said.

One of the ironies of the workers’ compensation mess is that many companies make concerted efforts to hire more older workers, in part by offering health benefits. Kasey said she found the Home Depot job attractive, after 30 years of earning higher wages as a bartender, in part because it offered health insurance.

She’d spent years in jobs where she had to hoist kegs and break up fights, so she didn’t mind moving washing machines. “Yeah, I’m older, not that I like to think about it,” she said. “I realize I probably can’t do a lot of the things I think I can.”

Labor studies show that, while older employees are hurt less often, when they are injured they heal more slowly and take longer to return to work. At the same time, employers want their insurance companies to keep down workers’ compensation costs, in part by getting employees to return to work as soon as possible.

Home Depot denied it pressures doctors to certify workers as healed. “The associate’s doctor is the sole determiner of whether or not an associate is medically able to perform transitional work,” the company said.

In November, after Kasey’s doctor reported that she was, theoretically, well enough to return to light duty work, Home Depot told her they didn’t have any light duty positions open, and since she was no longer exempt from working, they terminated her.

Her worker’s comp is running out, she’s about to lose her regular health insurance and says she can’t afford to extend it via COBRA. Her house is on the market; if it doesn’t sell by March, she could lose it, she said.

But she expects to reach “maximal medical improvement” in June. She may be fully employable again, and the letter she got informing her she was terminated said she could always reapply for a job with Home Depot.

Click Here For The Original Article Online.

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