'Beware the Carpal Tunnel!': State workers discuss 'flood' of workers' comp claims

News-DemocratMarch 27, 2011 

Emails flew between the Menard Correctional Center workers' compensation coordinator and a Central Management Services claims processor, using words like "pandemic" and "flood" to describe hundreds of repetitive trauma claims filed by guards at the Chester prison.

But despite the written concerns of two state workers whose job it was to deal with the rising number of workers' compensation claims at the state's largest prison, an investigation only began following newspaper stories a year later.

In December, the News-Democrat reported that since 2008, taxpayers paid almost $10 million to employees at Menard for various workers' compensation injuries. In all, more than 500 claims were filed, and about half are pending.

The total includes more than 230 claims, of which about half are pending, that were filed by guards for repetitive trauma damage to their wrists and elbows caused by locking and unlocking heavy cell doors. They claim repetitive trauma resulted in carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries.

According to copies of emails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Barbara Fink, who was then the workers' comp coordinator at Menard, wrote on May 29, 2009, to Sue Zellers at CMS, the huge state agency that acts as the state's insurance agency and decides workers' compensation cases:

"Sending nine new claims your way -- most are carpal tunnel. The trickle has become a FLOOD! It's not 'Beware the Ides of March' but rather, 'Beware the Carpal Tunnel!'"

Fink, 60, has her own pending workers' compensation case. She said she slipped and fell but declined further comment. Her case is among hundreds recently discovered during a review of cases at the prison that had not been referred to the office of the attorney general. Only about one in five of about 25,000 workers' compensation claims involving state employees has been referred to the attorney general.

One of the main concerns expressed in the emails was about temporary total disability (TTD) at the prison, which, according to Illinois Department of Corrections policy, has no provision for light-duty:

* On Sept. 28, 2009, Zellers wrote to Fink --"GEEZ! Are there any people left working at Menard? We get a few back to work and a boatload go off of work!"

* On April 30, Zellers wrote to Fink, "We do have a HUGE problem ... 82 people off work at Menard and NO ONE on light duty! That is a BIG HUGE issue!"

* On June 18, Fink wrote to Zellers, "We both know that the officers in some cases know what to tell the doctor when he writes the light-duty and they stay off." Zellers replied, "I know TTD at Menard is out of control. ..."

Zellers could not be reached for comment.

Cara Smith, chief of staff for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said that 25 light-duty positions have been set up at Menard and two have been filled. A total of 27 Menard employees -- 19 guards and eight other employees -- are off work on temporary total disability.

"It is extraordinarily challenging to come up with a light-duty position in a maximum security prison," Smith said.

The emails also brought to light that some Menard employees on temporary total disability leave recuperating from surgery to correct a repetitive trauma injury were also getting elective surgery while off work for such things as hernia repair or lap-band surgeries to lose weight.

"Can we do anything about these people, while they are out on work comp, getting nonrelated surgeries?" Zellers asked in an email to Barry H. Wesley, an assistant attorney general who handles workers' compensation cases.

"This would impede their recovery on the work comp claim and the taxpayers are paying for their time off for nonwork-related medical issues. ... What can we do to stop this? Just ridiculous!" Zellers wrote to Wesley, whose job is to handle workers' compensation claims that either are challenged and/or go to arbitration.

Wesley, who could not be reached for comment, made a claim for a shoulder and lower back injury in 2009 and for carpal and cubital tunnel injuries for which he had surgery in November, according to reports. He was not paid for time off and did not receive a settlement, but his medical bills were paid, according to an attorney general's spokeswoman.

In other emails, Fink warned about glitches that caused taxpayers to pay for unauthorized vacations for guards and prison supervisors.

"People who have been working full duty and then suddenly, a week or so before their scheduled (workers' compensation) surgery, they get a doctor to take them off-duty. It's like a free vacation," Fink stated in an email to Zellers on July 21, 2009.

"I've had two officers and now one lieutenant do this. There's nothing that can be done if they have a doctor's slip. It's just abusing the system," she said.

Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said that a recent review at the prison showed there were 277 workers' compensation claims filed by Menard employees that her office was unaware of until it did an on-site audit last month. Of those claims, 93 were identified as involving repetitive trauma injuries.

Cases are usually referred to the attorney general's office only after someone at CMS questions them or the claimant challenges CMS's decision on how much money to award.

While CMS figures show there are more than 25,000 pending workers' compensation claims involving state workers, Bauer said only about 5,000 were referred to the attorney general's office. The state has 68,680 employees in agencies and about 64,000 in the state university system.

Alka Nayyar, a spokeswoman for CMS, said: "The majority of claims made do not go to settlement or award. Some claims, for example, involve no monetary compensation or involve reimbursement for medical or lost time only."

Nayyar said her agency reports fraud when it is discovered.

But the system needs more oversight, Bauer said.

"What the overall statewide figures demonstrate is a real need to implement more rigorous checks and balances early in the process," Bauer said, "so that problematic files or patterns of a suspect claim are identified early and effectively."

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

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