Dennis Owen has two fused wrists, a busted shoulder and many other injuries. He can’t work, but can’t seem to win a worker’s compensation case.
“You work so hard throughout your life for everything. And then it's gone because of somebody else's actions,” said Owen.
After a decade of fighting the bureaucracy, he’s lost his home and just filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.
“We don't trust it. The procedures, the policies, anything. The whole system is just broken,” said Owen.
These are reasons Utah State Senator Wayne Harper called for an audit in the Labor Commission’s Adjudication Division.
“Nobody got what they expected other than it did highlight the fact that yes, there had been records that have been destroyed, and ALJs who had sent cases back because they didn't get the results, the opinion, that the ALJ wanted,” said Senator Harper.
Those Administrative Law Judges use a medical panel that’s supposed to give medical opinions on injuries.
“Because the medical panels themselves … we'd complained all along were, were in fact not just bias. There were conflicts of interest,” said Owen.
The audit found “potential conflicts of interest.” For example and excerpt of the audit reads “two medical chairs work for an occupational medicine clinic that receives large donations from a major insurance company. An executive from that same insurance company sits on the clinic’s board of directors.”
The audit also found that in some cases and injured worker would have several claims that would all be heard by the same judge and the very same panel. The audit recommends avoiding that to then avoid the “perception of bias.”
From many of these finding, Senator Harper introduced Senate Bill 191.
“And it simply goes through and says that the commissioner may recuse him or herself when they have a conflict. It tightens up the time frames to 60 or 90 days for appeal and different stages of that appeal. Which everybody supports and the commission says we ought to do that anyway,” said Senator Harper.
The bill also provides more members for the medical panel, someone to oversee the medical panel’s actions and better training.
“The bill says you will have different groups because then you can have … this gets away from the perception of bias. You'll have a fair second hearing,” said Senator Harper.
While Owen says he would like to see even more improvements, he calls the bill a step in the right direction.
“I think it will make a big difference. Where it would at least make us feel that we're getting a fair shot,” said Owen.
Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi issued the following statement to ABC 4 News:
“The Commission is pleased with the results of the Legislative Audit and is gratified the review
by impartial and objective auditors, "has found no evidence that the Labor Commission's
proceedings are biased against injured workers."
The Audit provides some suggestions regarding improvement on overall timeliness, and the need
for increased oversight and training for medical panels. These suggestions are fully embraced, as
some have been already implemented by the new Division Director, as a sign of our belief in an
open and transparent process.
We remain committed to the strictest standards of ethical behavior, while serving the people of
the State of Utah with integrity and expediency. We will also increase our communication
efforts to avoid the "perceived" appearance of bias, and move forward with the immediate
implementation of all of the Audit's recommendations.
• The Commission has reduced the backlog of pending appeals from 238 in March 2008, to
24 as of February 1, 2013.
• We are reducing the time for issuing orders from 120 days to 60 days within the next 18
• The Commission has adopted a Code of Judicial Conduct modeled after the Utah Code of
Judicial Conduct, which imposes high standards of professionalism and ethical conduct.
• We now conduct on-line performance surveys of its ALJs after every hearing.
• The Commission enthusiastically supports the Audit's recommendation of hiring a
medical director to recruit competent panel members, provide training, and maintain the
quality of panel reports.”