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Injured at Work

Bill changes system for hurt workers

Plan will regulate independent medical examinations

STEVE LAW
Statesman Journal

July 19, 2005

The Legislature completed action Monday on a bill aimed at cleaning up Oregon's discredited "independent medical exam" system for injured workers.

When Oregonians suffer on-the-job injuries and file workers' compensation insurance claims, they are routed to doctors hired by the insurer or employer to evaluate the injuries. The system has spawned widespread complaints that the doctors are "hired guns" inclined to downplay worker injuries and keep compensation payments low.

The House unanimously passed Senate Bill 311-B, sending the reform bill to Gov. Ted. Kulongoski's desk for his expected signature. The Senate earlier passed the bill with no dissenting votes, and the measure has support from both worker and business groups.

Keizer resident Donna Whited's complaints about the independent medical examiner system are shared by many others. The certified nurse's assistant, 58, has been unable to work for several years after injuring her shoulder while working at a local care center.

When Whited visited an independent medical examiner in February, she was shocked at the doctor's findings.

"Three-fourths of what he had in his information was bogus," Whited said. "He said I didn't seem to be in pain."

Whited said she's in constant pain.

"I can't walk anywhere. I can't do anything," she said. "I'm unable to do the dishes, vacuum the floor, anything."

A 2004 state survey showed that even 53 percent of the doctors doing exams agreed that the system is biased .

SB 311-B was championed by injured worker Ernie Delmazzo. After failing to get a bill advanced in the 2003 Legislature, Delmazzo persuaded the Management Labor Advisory Committee to take up the matter. That group is an official arbiter of workers' compensation-reform proposals in Oregon.

The management-labor panel asked the state to conduct a study, which validated worker claims that the system is tilted against them.

Under SB 311-B, the state will begin seriously regulating the independent-medical-examiner system for the first time.

The Department of Consumer and Business Services won authority to hire seven compliance specialists and support-staff members. The department's Workers' Compensation Division will establish a list of doctors authorized to conduct the exams. The state will set certification standards and develop training programs for the doctors. Workers will be allowed to file complaints, which will be investigated by regulators.

Workers will be penalized if they don't show up for exams. They also can seek to visit doctors who are closer to their homes.

Delmazzo didn't get all he wanted in the bill, but all parties agreed to a compromise package.

slaw@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6615


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