The Industrial Commission of Ohio (IC) declares its mission on its website as “[to s]erve injured workers and Ohio employers through expeditious and impartial resolution of issues arising from workers’ compensation claims.” As many of you know from your own experience, the IC is the state agency that conducts hearings on contested workers’ compensation claims. If the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation or a self-insured employer refuses to provide an injured worker with benefits or compensation that are being requested, the issue goes before a hearing officer at the IC. The IC has hearing offices and hearing officers throughout the state.
But as the state struggles to cut costs, the IC has not escaped significant cuts in personnel. Along with these cuts, the IC has closed five hearing offices and created a bank of typists centrally located to type up the orders of hearing officers throughout the state.
In follow up to these cuts, the IC introduced video hearings at some of its offices over the summer and into the fall. Remote hearing officers appear on monitors at the head of the hearing table, while the parties assemble around the table to present their arguments. The IC claims that these video hearings increase efficiency and save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually as well as $2 million in travel expenses that would be typically paid to hearing officers that have to drive to various state offices to conduct hearings.
Along similar lines, the IC began using a “Language Line” to cut costs for interpreters at hearings. Instead of having an interpreter present before, during and after the hearing to communicate with a foreign language speaking claimant, the hearing officers would make a conference call to a remote interpreter who would interpret via phone during the hearing. The IC claimed that this saved $81,667 a year in interpretive costs for the state and decreased the likelihood of a hearing cancellation due to weather conditions that might prevent the interpreter from making the hearing.
The common thread in the IC’s stated purpose in making these changes is to cut costs and improve efficiency. But there is another common thread that, from my perspective as an injured worker’s representative, is more significant–and which far outweighs any costs to be cut from the IC’s budget. The presence of the hearing officer and the presence of the interpreter in the hearing room to see and hear testimony and arguments and to answer questions is essential to a fair hearing for the injured worker. How does a remote hearing officer observe witnesses and judge credibility through a monitor? How does a phoned-in interpreter sense that a non-English speaking claimant needs help understanding a question or argument made during the hearing? The human element of the hearing is essential to the process. It is the same human element in a courtroom where we would never accept a judge who heard a case over the phone, or a jury on a video monitor, not present to see and hear testimony before making an important decision for a client.
What is really being cut here is the injured worker’s access to the system. And the unfairness of this has not gone unnoticed by the people who work with the system. It seems that these two recent programs are undergoing reevaluation as I write this. And rightfully so.
If the state needs to make cuts in the costs of the workers’ compensation agencies, it should consider the amount of money that is paid annually to the Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) that lord over the treatment requests made by individual injured workers and their doctors under their workers’ compensation claims. These very expensive gate-keepers generate dozens of hearings weekly for injured workers and their attorneys. They generate endless and costly denials of treatment for silly reasons that are ultimately overturned by the hearing officer–who has the advantage of seeing the injured worker in the flesh, hearing his or her story and assessing the need for treatment in person.
I am all for saving money and reducing waste in the system–that can benefit everyone–but it seems these cuts ultimately disadvantage injured workers by taking away their access to and their human contact with the people who run the system. It is so much easier to deny treatment requests and benefits when you don’t see a real person at the other end of the claim. It goes well beyond efficiency and impartiality to blantant disregard for the needs of Ohio’s injured workers–the very people the system is supposed to serve.