State officials call for Menard probe of workers' compensation payments

News-DemocratDecember 30, 2010 

— In less than three years, nearly $10 million in state taxpayer-funds has been awarded in workers' compensation payments to employees at the Menard Correctional Center where 389 guards and other workers -- more than half the maximum security lockup's entire staff -- have claimed an on-the-job injury.

More than 500 claims, including a $75,678 payment to the prison's warden in June, have been filed since Jan. 1, 2008. Approximately 290 cases are pending. More than 230 prison workers contend they were injured not because of an accident but through repetitive trauma caused over years mainly by operating manual cell locking mechanisms. Carpal tunnel syndrome can result from repetitive trauma.

After learning the results of a News-Democrat investigation that revealed these figures, Mitch Weisz, chairman of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, said Wednesday he has called for an official investigation of the Menard claims by the state's Department of Insurance and has contacted the agency's Director Michael McRaith.

"I have sent an e-mail to Director McRaith and told him I want to sit down with him to discuss whether we can get the fraud investigation unit to look into this," Weisz said, adding that he will try to meet with McRaith in the next few days.

"(The newspaper) brought this to our attention and we're intending to follow up on this. I told him I felt that it needed to be investigated," Weisz said.

"I'm surprised that with all the different agencies that are involved, that it's taken you guys to bring this to my attention. My eyes are wide open. ... It's hard for me to imagine it's all kosher."

Cara Smith, a deputy attorney general and spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said her office is conducting a, "Re-evaluation of all the carpal tunnel (repetitive trauma) cases to determine their validity and appropriateness for compensation," especially those from Menard and other prison sites. Smith also said that a "job site analysis" will be carried out at Menard and other prison locations to determine if injuries can be avoided. It is unclear whether awarded judgments can be rescinded.

Fairview Heights attorney Thomas Rich, whose office has handled a majority of the prison's compensation claims since 2008, said that a check of his own records showed that an overwhelming proportion of repetitive trauma claims by state workers were approved without opposition. A lawyer from the Illinois Attorney General represents the employer if it is a state agency, in this case the Department of Corrections.

"If the state chooses to accept a claim, then that is entirely their decision," Rich said. However, Rich said the approval rate has reversed since the legislature held recent hearings on reforming the workers' compensation law and since the New-Democrat's articles about repetitive trauma claims from Menard began this month.

"Now that the legislature has gone into session to ostensibly change the workers' comp law, and now that the articles have appeared in the paper, " he said, "The people who have been approving 19 out of 20 of these claims are having people look over their work and are now denying all repetitive (state worker) trauma claims ... Now all anyone can do is go before a judge (arbitrator) and let it rip."

Smith, the attorney general's spokeswoman, said that fighting the repetitive trauma cases has been an, "uphill battle."

Claims settlement records from the commission show that of 98 claims for repetitive trauma filed in 2009 for Menard workers, 86 were brought by Rich's office and were handled by the same lawyer from the attorney general's office and the same state arbitrator or judge. These hearings were held in a meeting room at Gibby's on the Green Restaurant at the Rend Lake Recreational Center in Whittington.

Weisz said an investigation would be timely because the Senate Special Committee on Workers' Compensation Reform, which has held recent hearings in Chicago and Mount Vernon, is scheduled to meet next week for a first reading of a proposed reform bill.

The latest injury claim numbers assembled by the News-Democrat dwarf figures reported in its two December stories that were based on information from a Workers' Compensation Commission public access computer at the agency's office in Collinsville for claimants whose employer was listed as "Menard CC" or "Menard Correctional Center." That database revealed $1.75 million in awards for injuries awarded to 56 prison employees including 51 guards and the warden who filed claims stating they were injured by repetitive trauma. Claims found on this database at the prison caused by accidents totaled 27 for the same period.

But workers whose employer was listed on the computer simply as "State of Illinois" included hundreds of Menard guards and workers who were overlooked. More specific computer data since supplied by the Illinois Attorney General and the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission revealed the extent of workers' compensation claims at the prison.

The revised data for the prison shows that since Jan. 1, 2008:

* $5.9 million was awarded in settled claims where a prison employee, usually a guard, claimed injury due to repetitive trauma due to working manual locking systems and keys or other repetitive duties.

* $2.2 million was awarded because of accidents like falling and injuries due to overexertion.

* $1.6 million was paid to workers recuperating from injury.

Exact totals for medical bills, which sometimes topped $100,000 for a single repetitive trauma case where there may have been complications, were not available, said Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission spokesman Nick Velazquez. They are paid through Central Management Services. Spokesmen at that agency could not be reached for comment.

"This is a scandal that nobody knows about. If you're an outsider looking in, you can't get your arms around this," said Gene Keefe, whose Chicago law firm specializes in defending employers against workers' compensation claims.

"The commission should start looking into this. (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) should look into it," Keefe said.

Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who was defeated by Democrat Pat Quinn for governor in November, said, "We've been trying to put teeth into the agencies to get them to be able to investigate and root out fraudulent workers' compensation claims. ... It doesn't appear that the state of Illinois is interested in looking into it."

Weisz, the commission chairman, said that of the agencies involved in the workers' compensation process -- the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission that handles the paperwork and decides claims, the attorney general whose lawyers represent the state as an employer, Central Management Services, which issues checks, it is the prison system that, "Should be made aware of these things."

But Sharyn Elman, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said her agency is not involved.

"We don't approve or disprove these claims," she said, "They don't go through the DOC." She said she was not aware of any plans to review working conditions at the 3,500-prisoner lockup.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.

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